Hector heaves his bag onto the bunk above Stanley's and stares around. "This cabin has a bathroom."
Stanley pokes his head into the room in question. "Just a toilet and a sink. No shower."
"Stanley." Hector laughs. "It could be a hose and a hole in the floor. Cabin D has a bathroom.
"Makes you wish Mr. Sir was around to see it, huh?"
They whirl. Hector vaults a chair. "X-Ray!"
X-Ray beams and grabs him hard. Coming up behind them, Stanley claps a hand on X-Ray's shoulder. "I like him where he is," Stanley says.
X-Ray tosses his bag on the bunk next to Hector's. "He looks like shit in his orange jump suit."
"Everybody looks like shit in orange jump suits," Hector says with a laugh.
X-Ray looks around. "I think we'll all fit in here." Shaking his head, he adds, "Squid isn't coming."
There's something tired in his eyes. "Is he okay?"
X-Ray's face hardens. "No." Stanley wants to pry. Hector shakes his head.
Stanley grits his teeth. He's resigned to being 'Caveman' this week. But he won't relax what Hector calls his 'Zero intolerance' policy. Hector speeds past him. "Don't fight my battles, Stanley." He's said this a lot in the month and a half since the dining hall.
Zigzag and Theo cross the dusty parking lot with a blond guy Stanley doesn't recognize. Zigzag's blond hair is buzzed to within an inch of his skull; Theo's lost seventy pounds. Hector greets them all. The unknown guy puts his arm around Hector's shoulder. Stanley's not so keen on that.
"Lookin' good, Caveman!" Theo grins, waves, points at the third guy. "You never met Barf Bag."
Barf Bag. The one Stanley replaced. The one who held out his foot to a rattlesnake rather than dig one more hole. Stanley respects him for that. He just wishes he'd take his arm off Hector's shoulder.
The quartet stops at the bottom of the cabin steps. "Caveman, Barf Bag, your predecessor. Barf Bag, Caveman, our liberator." Kind of strange, Armpit saying words like 'predecessor' and 'liberator.'
Warily, Stanley holds out his hand. "Stanley."
Barf Bag shakes. His left arm continues to hold Hector. "Lewis."
Zigzag spits on the ground. "'Stanley,'" he mocks. "'Lewis.' Are X-Ray and I the only ones who give a shit about tradition?"
"There's always Squid," Theo says. There's real steel in his voice.
"Fuck you, Armpit," X-Ray snaps and storms into the cabin.
"What did I miss?" They turn; no one heard Twitch approach the edge of the circle.
Lewis shrugs and lets go - finally - of Hector. "No idea."
Another round of introductions. Inside the cabin, the newcomers claim their bunks, and there they all stand. Ready to spit on the past and unsure how, exactly, to do it.
X-Ray laughs. "There's a lake now. A real god-damned lake. I'm gonna swim in it!"
A cheer and a tumble of teenagers follow him out of the cabin. Zigzag grabs Stanley's shoulder before he can get out the door. "Nobody would care, you know. It'd be a squeeze, but just in case."
This is Stanley's day to look baffled. "Care about what?"
"You and Zero sharing a bunk. If you think you'll fit." He grins and swats Stanley's gut. "Good thing Zero's little, huh?"
Stanley smiles and walks down the cabin steps. "We''ll think about it," he says.
"Cool." Zigzag grins. "Hey! Race you to the lake!" He sprints ahead. Stanley tears after him, and he's almost hit the water before he wonders why the hell he said that.
Anyone who tells you that ghosts have infinite patience is a damned fool. Sam and Katherine have been dead a long time. They want results.
Because they have a car, Stanley and Hector fill a cooler with bologna sandwiches, a six-pack of Sprite, peaches (of course), and bags of chips and drive as far up God's Thumb as a car will go. They've made the climb before, but they're not masochists. It doesn't seem as long this time before the onion patch shimmers into view. Of course, this time, they have two full water bottles each, and neither of them is dying. But the onions don't look any more real until they're almost right on top of the patch.
"How's your head?" Stanley drops his backpack on a rock and reaches for the wound.
Hector slaps his hand away. "I'm fine, Stanley. Stop mother henning me."
It turned out that Stanley's fathers financial woes were the fault of the Yelnats family curse, but his klutziness was not. Stanley knows first aid and knows it well. Hector's wound is barely a paler line on his dark temple. He pretends to be pissed that it won't scar. Stanley continues to hover around that pale line like nothing else holds Hector's life force inside his small body.
"I worry." Stanley sits on the rock next to his bag and sulks.
"Why?" Hector teases. "Did you do a bad job?"
"I did a fantastic--" Stanley realizes he's been had, stops. He tries to glare at Hector and fails, settles for sticking out his tongue.
"Very mature." Hector drops down on the rock between Stanley and his bag. "And quite attractive."
Stanley peers down, his eyes crossing in his effort to see his own tongue. "I kinda think it is."
Groaning, Hector reaches behind Stanley and pulls two sodas and two peaches from the cooler. "It's gorgeous up here." He tosses a can to Stanley, puts the peaches on the rock, leans back and shields his eyes against the unforgiving sun. "I didn't notice last time."
"We were busy with other things last time."
Laughing ruefully, Hector drinks. "Like trying not to die?"
Something unexpectedly serious glimmers into Stanley's eyes. "I was sure I'd lost you."
"Tch." Hector scoffs, but his face pales at his hazy memory of those days. "Takes more than dehydration to kill a Zeroni. I had my Sploosh, and the 'Mary Lou.'" Though he knows far better, he pronounces it 'MAR-ya-low,' like he did at the beginning. He grins at Stanley. "And you were coming for me."
Stanley gives him a smile fuzzy around the edges. "You knew that before I did." His head drops against the rock; he taps a syncopated rhythm against his legs. "MAR-ya-low," he sing-songs. "MAR-ya-low." His eyes pop open; he bolts upright. "Mary Lou!" He stretches behind Hector but can reach. He snaps his fingers. "Hector! Hand me my bag!" Snap snap.
He knows the look on Hector's face - the 'my best friend has two heads' look - but he picks up the bag. A startled grimace twists his face. "What's in here - bricks? You stealing Devon's rock samples again?"
Stanley doesn't hear as he rummages through his bag. His "Ah-hah!" trembles at the edge of revelatory hysteria as the biography of Kate Barlow emerges from the dark canvas depths.
Hector's eyes bulge. "You brought a textbook up God's Thumb?"
"It was in the bag already." Stanley's only half there, zipping through the pages. He freezes, fingers shaking above a grainy photo. "Miss Katherine Barlow & class, 1887." The tremorous fingers graze the tiny dark figure in the background. "Sam," he breathes.
Against good judgement, Hector slides closer on the rock. "Sam who?"
Another rummage produces Stanley's notebook. He searches its pages frantically. "Here. 'Teaching in a one-room schoolhouse was a lonely business, once the children went home for the day. One of Barlow's only consistent companions at the Green Lake School was a local farmer named Sam. Sam's last name - if he had one - is lost; we know him only as "Sam the Onion Man." He was a freed slave who tended an onion patch on the far side of Green Lake, swearing by onion juice as a restorative, the only effective repellent of the deadly yellow-spotted lizard, and a potion to retain youthful vigor. As proof of this (as we know from Barlow's diary) Sam pointed to his donkey, Mary Lou, who he claimed was over a hundred years old.'"
Hector stares at him. "Mary Lou," he breathes.
Stanley stares back. "I didn't know why I was writing that down." He shakes his head. "That was his boat. It must have been. But what does it mean?"
Hector thinks for a minute. Then, "She was in love with him," he says decisively.
Stanley blinks in the harsh sunlight and the glare of unexpected truth. "What?"
Warming to his theory, Hector stands, nodding. "Katherine Barlow and Sam were in love." He holds out his hand. "Give me those notes." Stanley hands them over, and Hector flips through them. "Here. 'In 1888, Sam was killed by an angry mob led by Charles "Trout" Walker and the sheriff of Green Lake (name also unknown). Three days later, the sheriff became the first man killed and kissed by Kissin' Kate Barlow. The causal relationship of these events is unknown.'" He snorts. "They were in love. That's why he's watching her in the picture and her peaches were in his boat. This Trout guy and the sheriff didn't like some uppity nigger--" Hector spits the word with the pent-up fury of someone who's had it screamed at him a dozen times before-- "in love with a pretty white school teacher, so they killed him."
"And it turned the pretty schoolteacher into an outlaw?" Stanley is incredulous.
"If somebody killed y--" Hector swallows. "Killed somebody I loved because they didn't like the color of my skin, or his, or that we're both guys..." He trails off, shaking his head.
Stanley smiles gently. "You'd rob a bank?"
Hector spits on the ground, like something in his mouth tastes ugly. "I'd kill them."
Stanley stares at the book in his lap. He looks at Hector. "You've done it. You've made the argument for my paper."
Hector sits again. "It's more than your paper, Stanley." He presses the notebook into his friend's hand. "This could make your whole career." He grins. "Not out of college, and you'll be a famous historian of the American West. You'll change everything we know about the 1880s."
Stanley blushes. "Come on, Hector."
"I'm not kidding, Stanley." And looking into his eyes, Stanley realizes that he really isn't.
"Great. I spend my whole semester on this paper, and you figure it out in a minute and a half."
"You plotted the points, Stanley. I just drew the graph."
With a snort, Stanley places a Post-It flag in his notebook to mark the passages about Sam. "Once a math geek," he mutters. His memory twangs, and he looks at Hector with a mix of panic and amusement. "I did a crazy thing today."
Hector's too pleased by half with his puzzle-solving skills. He lays back on the rock, sunning himself like a yellow-spotted lizard. "Besides bringing a textbook up God's Thumb?"
"I told Zigzag we'd think about sharing a bunk tonight."
One dark eye cracks open. "You and Zigzag? That's funnier than eleven clowns in a Volkswagen."
Swatting lazily at Hector's shin, Stanley says, "You and me, dumbass."
Hector sits up so fast he tumbles off the rock onto the damp ground. "Why? What the hell for?"
Stanley frowns. "Relax. I don't know why I did it. Zigzag thinks we're together. Like everybody else. I don't know. We'll straighten it out at dinner."
"You'd better," Hector grumbles, picking at the knees of his pants, avoiding Stanley's eyes.
"Or," Stanley says suddenly, leaning over his rock to loom over Hector, "we could share a bunk. Really confuse 'em." Hector slides backward, away. "It could be fun. Like a sleepover." Stanley frowns. "Never did those when I was a kid. It's hard to, when you don't have friends."
Hector shakes his head rapidly. "That's a bad idea, Stanley."
Stanley frowns, hurt by something he can't identify in Hector's voice. Something panicked. "Is it the nightmares? I don't thrash much anymore." He stops. Hector shouldn't know about the thrashing. He's told no one about the nightmares - not even Hector, who he tells everything.
Hector cants him a sharp glance. "You have nightmares?"
"Never mind. Why is it a bad idea?"
"It just is." Hector's voice has never sounded so flat.
"You think that's going to fly with me, Hector?"
Hector turns his back on Stanley. "You don't want me to answer that question, Stanley. For real."
Stanley reaches forward, grabs Hector's shoulder from behind. "Hector--"
"Because if we share a bunk," Hector explodes, "I'm gonna do this." He corkscrews fast on the ground, grabs the back of Stanley's head and pulls him close.
And kisses him.
Stanley presses back reflexively. He doesn't know what he wants, except for Hector to hold still long enough for him to figure out what he wants. But Hector's already moving - away, damn it - scooting across the ground like it's on fire. Now he's on his feet. "Hector, wait--"
Like a hunted rabbit at the braying of the hound, Hector sprints, fleeing down God's Thumb toward the car. Stanley hopes he's headed for the car. Hector survived the desert once, but they ate all the Sploosh, and the 'Mary Lou' went to some museum in Fort Worth, and Stanley doesn't like to think about the odds of making it again. He shoves his gear into his bag and the cooler and races after the only friend who's ever been worth a damn.
When they get back, the others have gathered in the cafeteria. They have to cook for themselves, which none of them are good at, but it's better than the food they got in the old days.
While Stanley was under God's Thumb, watching his world spin off its axis, the others were exploring the scene of the old nightmares.
"They put a building around the showers," Lewis reports. "With walls, and a ceiling, and heat. Theo turned on a shower and let it run for half an hour."
Shrugging, Theo pops a mouthful of overcooked carrots into his mouth and says, "I couldn't believe it wasn't just shutting off after four minutes."
"Want to hear something better?" Lewis asks, too much of his attention on Hector. "The Warden's cabin is still there. It's the Head Counselor's cabin or some shit. Those driftwood sculptures and stuffed animal heads she had are gone; everything's 'country cottage' or some cutesy shit. But her shrine to Kissin' Kate's still on the wall."
"We should stay there," Stanley says, not because he gives a damn, but because Hector hasn't looked up from his plate since they sat down.
"We wouldn't all fit." Lewis shakes his head. "We could trade off nights."
"You and Zero should take it, Caveman." Zigzag laughs. "The Warden'd bite clean through her cell bars if she knew - the two kids who brought her down having sex in her old cabin."
It's a silence so deep you could lose small animals in it. Hector's fingers tighten until the cheap tin of his fork bends with a protesting creak.
From the corner of his mouth, X-Ray mutters, "Dude. Not cool."
"What?" Zigzag looks around, indignant. "Don't tell me you didn't all know."
Hector shoves his plate away and stands. His glare stabs through Stanley's heart. He stalks away.
Theo elbows Zigzag. "Nice work, Ricky."
"What?" He spreads his hands, appealing to Stanley. "What did I do?"
Through gritted teeth, Stanley says, "I'm working on it. I'm fixing it."
"It doesn't look fixed," Lewis muses.
Stanley slams his fork, tines first, into the table. "You stay out of it." He doesn't know what upsets him more - Lewis sticking his nose in Hector's business, or Lewis being right.
But one thing's for damned sure: he's not about to lose Hector over this.
Peaches and onions. Onions and peaches. They saved Stanley and Hector's lives; they made Hector and Stanley's fortune. You can't run from a destiny that big.
The boys of Cabin D stay up as late as their drooping eyelids will let them, but Hector's still in hiding. Lewis tries to look for him several times, but Twitch and X-Ray block the cabin door, and Theo threatens to sit on him. Theo and X-Ray keep looking at Stanley, expecting him to go after Hector. Stanley knows better. Leave Hector to his own thoughts and he'll come home.
Home. Why did he think that?
Stanley's the only one still awake when the door creaks open. He sits up as Hector sneaks toward the ladder to his bunk. "Where are you going?"
Hector jumps. "Jesus Christ, Stanley! Why are you still awake?"
"I was waiting for you." Stanley crosses his arms. "Where are you going?"
"To bed." There's ice at the edge of Hector's voice.
"You were going to sleep down here tonight." Stanley tries for playful.
Hector freezes. "No, I wasn't."
"Hector." Stanley reaches out his hand, fingers grazing the leg of Hector's jeans. "Please sleep with me tonight."
The wood of the bed frame creaks under Hector's fingers. "Why?" he snaps. "Why the hell would I do that, Stanley? Why the hell would you want me to?"
"I don't know," Stanley admits helplessly. Two bunks over, Twitch shifts restlessly, muttering nonsense syllables. Stanley lowers his voice. "You kissed me this morning, then you ran away before I could figure out what the hell was going on. You didn't give me a chance to decide if I liked it."
"Why would you?" Hector takes a step closer so he can lower his voice as well. "You've never been interested in another guy before."
Stanley shrugs. "Yeah, and I've never really been interested in a girl, either." He raises his eyes to Hector's, faintly illuminated by the disinterested light of the waxing moon. "I haven't been interested in anybody but you. I've barely noticed anybody but you. That's what I decided today."
"You don't--" Hector's eyes close. "Stanley, you can't just decide--"
"Maybe I didn't 'decide,' then. Maybe I realized. Maybe I realized how much my life would suck if you met some handsome stranger - or if you and Lewis--"
"Barf Bag?" Hector demands.
"For instance." He struggles to sit up. "Please, Hector. Just for tonight."
Hector stares at him. "I meant what I said this morning. If I sleep in this bunk tonight, I'll--"
"That's what I'm counting on." Stanley flips his sleeping bag open.
Hector hesitates for a minute more, but some resistance in him has broken down, and he climbs into the sleeping bag. Reaching out with shaking fingers, he cups Stanley's face in his hands and kisses him.
And Stanley kisses back. For real, this time, not out of reflex. He kisses back, and pushes back, and somehow Hector ends up on his back, Stanley grinning over him. "Decided anything else yet?" He's laughing, but Stanley hears his fear.
"Yeah." Stanley slides his hand under Hector's shirt. "I've decided I want to keep doing that. And anything else you've got."
Hector removes the roving hand. "One thing at a time."
Stanley considers. "That's okay. I like this thing just fine."
"Your mother's going to hate this."
Stanley shakes his head. "Nah. Well, yeah. maybe at first. Eventually she should just be thrilled that I finally made a decision about something."
It must be well past four when Theo's shirt zings through the air and hits the side of Stanley's head. "Get a room, you two. People are trying to sleep here."
Hector flings the shirt back. He and Stanley grin at each other. "We can fix that," they chorus.
The next day after breakfast, Hector and Stanley move into the Warden's cabin. In the afternoon, when the sun's at its least forgiving, the guys come crash there, in the air conditioning. Stanley curls around Hector on the bed, and they all raise cans of ice-cold soda and toast the bitch.
None of them are looking out the window, so they miss the two ghosts - the farmer and the outlaw - walking hand-in-hand toward God's Thumb. Dozens of miles from the nearest canister of Sploosh, a scent of peaches and onions wafts over Camp Green Lake, and the last debt is at last marked as paid.