Max awaited outside the mess hall with his hands in his pockets, unsure on how to proceed. Time was of the essence, yet there he was: fiddling with a piece of paper in his right pocket and looking like a toddler waiting to be picked-up after school.
Everything had –for the moment- succeeded and he was free to enjoy the fruits of his labor. In between his denim jeans, a small plastic bag filled with nuts, seeds, and chocolates remained hidden to avoid any snitches. If he was caught, it could be a true disaster for his image and any of his future plots, as Gwen wouldn't take his eyes out of him for a week at best. Max was in a race against time before the counselors noticed Preston and Nurf were missing. Were they to be found without a cover-up, and everything was bound to come crashing right at him… except if he was able to get a friendly pair of hands to help.
So, deciding that idling around was worse than risking rejection, he took a deep breath and ruffled his hair with his hands to make it look messier, and put-on a happy look. He opened the doors and stepped inside the mess-hall, where the rest of the campers were taking lunch. Harrison was closest to the entrance; he didn't raise his gaze to look at max, as he was too focused on conjuring a rabbit out of his hat, so it could eat his food. Nerris was nearby and she too didn't pay the slightest attention to Max, but her distraction was an ongoing DnD session with her many plushies. Ered and Dolf were sat next to each other –at the other end of the room- chatting of something Max couldn't nor wanted to hear. Space kid had already finished his food and was playing in a corner; he ran around in circles, making explosion noises while holding a rocket toy up with his right hand.
Finally, beside to a column, Neil and Nikki were playing with some origami figures. Neil proudly held a paper crane on his open palm, and an excited Nikki tried to replicate the figurine. As he got closer to the pair, Max could overhear a faint conversation taking place between Neil and Nikki. "See, Nikki, paper isn't only something you can write on… or in your case eat. But it can be turned into its own form of art"-Neil grabbed the crane's tail and pulled it. As if alive, the stained periodic paper crane flapped its wings. Nikki let out a shriek and stared at the crane with delight-"I learned to do this before summer. I wanted to do something aside from coding, math, chemistry, physics, and watching Game of Thrones with my dad's HBO account. So, after the Japanese and Otaku culture appreciation club in my school, I practiced a bit and ta-da: Crane! I'll name it Akira. What do you think, Nikki?"
Nikki didn't answer Neil's question and only limited herself to nod. She had managed to make her own crane, and though nowhere near as polished or accurate as Neil's, was able to flap its wings, much to Nikki's joy.
Max rolled-up his eyes and chuckled. "God damn, Neil! You always manage to turn even the coolest stuff into the lamest." Thought Max. He reached the table where Neil and Nikki played with their cranes. Without even bothering to salute, he dropped unto a seat next to Nikki. He kept his mouth shut for a minute, even while Neil and Nikki looked at him. Max broke the awkward silence between them, "What, aren't you guys going to say hello?" He asked with a cocked brow.
"Well, you didn't say hello to begin with." Nikki Replied.
Max shrugged and reached for the bag inside his pants. "Consider this a hello from me." Said Max before putting the bag on the table, in the middle of an amazed Nikki and a wary Neil.
Nikki was ready to dig-in, but Neil stopped her, "Nikki don't touch that. You don't know where that has been!"-He pushed the bag towards Max-"We don't even know where Max got this from."
Max was waiting for Neil's question. "I'm glad you are interested in how I got this. But, does that really matter? I wanted to share it with you guys, so we could eat something…"-Max looked above his shoulder, towards the kitchen. There, Quartermaster listened to Max's words while looking at him straight in the eyes. Quartermaster's pointy hook shone as he washed a plate-"lighter. I meant lighter, alright? Nevermind, the point is that I have this bag of seeds and I am going to give it to you guys."
Neil narrowed his eyes at Max, not believing Max's words even a bit. "What's up with the bag, Max? You aren't telling us something"-He slapped Nikki's hand off the seeds-"We aren't touching it until you tell us how you got it!"
Max bit-down on his lip; his face became more serious almost dropping the friendliness entirely. "Of course, Neil! You can't keep your dumb fucking questions to yourself, can you?" Max cursed in his mind. He wasn't going to be caught, and even less so by Neil of all people. Max quickly thought of a story and spoke, "My god, Neil! I didn't want to get so on edge. But…"-Max sighed and looked to the side-"I guess I am safe with you guys. I got this after a fight with Nurf."
Nikki and Neil gasped, looking frightened at the mention of Camp Campbell's resident bully. Max came close to smirking and throwing his sad facade out the window. Yet he continued, "Nurf stole this and some other bags from a stash of trail David hid in one of the tool sheds. After me and Neil had our discussion, –sorry for that, by the way."-Max offered a fist bump to Neil. Neil reluctantly agreed to it after looking at Max's vulnerable expression and apparently genuine expression-"I wandered around the camp while thinking about your adventure, and wondering about a prank that three of us could pull against David. That was when I noticed, as I got close to the tool shed near Theater Camp, someone talking. At first, I didn't recognize whose voice it was and chose to keep my distance from the source, but then I heard someone say something about David. It instantly made more interested on whatever was going on there, so I carefully threaded towards the shed and…"
(Max's fake story POV)
Max advanced towards the tool-shed almost on the tip of his feet. The deep voice of Nurf sometimes got closer and Max was forced to stop until it grew quieter. Alongside Nurf, Max could her another voice, yet it was very different and squeakier. Its owner didn't seem to move around like Nurf, yet it was another pair of ears that could detect him, so Max still took the same precautions whenever the mysterious camper talked. Once he got close enough to the shed that he could watch it carefully without missing a spot, Max hid behind a tree and in between a lush berry bush while laying on his belly. It wasn't long before Nurf came out of the shed, holding a scared Preston at knife-point.
"Where do I leave these?" Asked Preston. His weak, theater-nerd arms trembled because of the weight they were carrying.
"Leave them nearby. We will pick them up later and place them in my tent." Nurf replied before lightly pressing the tip of his pocket-knife on Preston's back to make him move.
Max watched as Preston walked near his hiding spot, but he didn't notice Max's crushed figure. Nurf followed closely behind, but he missed Max as well. I t was then when Max noticed what Preston was carrying: a full sack of trail mix and a smaller pack of sunflower seeds.
Something clicked in Max mind. He understood there had to be more from where that came from, so, the moment Nurf and Preston were out of sight, he made a dash for the shed. He peeked from the shed's door frame, and saw several gray sacks of trail mix and a small notepad with David's handwriting on it. "This must be David's whole order for the summer"-Max grabbed the notepad and read it. Then he discarded it with disgust the moment he saw a smiley emoji doodled at the end of the page-"Ugh, I should better keep this trail mix to myself and see if we can split it with Nikki and Neil. Maybe we can sell it in the town –if we ever come back there- and save for another computer… definitely something better than Neil's junk!" Max thought.
Initially, Max thought he could carry some with a large shovel, but it was way too heavy to work, so he set the tool aside for later, when he would use it to hide the sacks. Another idea was to tie some of the sacks and carry them on his back. His shoulders could serve his as support for the heavy load. However, this option too had to be discarded upon execution; the bags almost flipped him over when he slung them behind his back. Max had to do it the hard way.
He got ready to carry as much as he could, but his body was smaller than Preston, and the task was set to be longer than he expected. He dragged a couple of sacks and deposited them in a clear deep in the forest; next to a tree and behind several tall bushes. He managed to do this by taking advantage of Nurf's tunnel vision. The bully was too focused making sure Preston followed his command and didn't escape, that he didn't notice the missing sacks and gave Max valuable time. Yet, once the loss became apparent, even for Nurf's split attention, he caught up with what was going on and began searching in and around the shed.
"Come out, you little shit! I know you are here." Nurf said. His pocket-knife shone with the morning's sunlight. He paced around, checking in every corner and getting frustrated after not finding anyone.
"Maybe there's no one here. I'd say it's only your mind playing you TRICKS!" Suggested Preston. He stayed put in the shed's entrance.
Nurf didn't like it. "Come here, now!"-Preston reached for Preston's arm and yanked him closer-"Help me, or I'll make sure you 'break a leg' in your next performance."
Both teens roamed the shed and its surroundings, though non could find a single trace of the thief. Meanwhile, Max watched them and smirked from a different spot near the edge of the forest. Once he realized Nurf wouldn't give up and they would be looking for him for a long time, Max scurried into the forest and set-up a trap. Using some ropes and the shovel from before, he dug a hole deep enough to trap either Nurf or Preston, and he made a simple snare trap using a tree. He chose the clear where he had placed the sacks as it made for a perfect bait. Once eveything was finished and functional, he returned to the shed. Even though a long while had passed, Nurf was still hunting for him while Preston pretended to do the same.
Max pondered whether he should catch Preston's attention or Nurf's. He chose the former and moved closer to Preston.
Preston was idly playing with his feet when he heard a rustling sound. He turned around to see Max smugly smiling at him and showing him a clump of trail mix on top of his open hand. He didn't doubt and screamed, "Nurf, a little RAT! has revealed himself in front of me. Come here so we can seize our stolen bounty!"
Nurf immediately faced Preston's direction. He didn't waste a second, and with fire in his eyes and his blood close to boil, he stormed towards Max. Nurf licked his lips and readied his pocket-knife, ready to make an example out of Max for any other campers who dared to trick him.
"Catch me if you can, moron!" Max bluffed. Nurf answered to Max's smug words with a growl. Max ran in the opposite direction, away from Nurf and Preston and into the forest.
Realizing that he needed help, Nurf ordered to Preston, "DON'T JUST STAND THERE. Bring Max to me, or you're NEXT!" Preston did as he was told and joined Nurf in his pursuit.
Max kept running, unable to lose them –not that it was problem, for he always had an ace under his sleeve. In that occasion, he didn't just have an ace; Max had the entire deck against Nurf and Preston. Both teens were oblivious to the trap that awaited them at the clear. Max arrived at small patch of grass close to the clear, and chose to stand his ground there and then lead Nurf and Preston to the trap after they had captured him. So, using all his acting skills, he doubled over and began panting like he was out of air and close to exhaustion. Soon, Preston and Nurf arrived as well.
Nurf was close to passing out, so finding Max in a worse state made him feel less insecure about his own fitness. With a grin, he spoke to Max, "Well, look at who gave up. You almost got us in the first half, not gonna lie"-Nurf took out his pocket knife from behind his back and examined it-"Sadly for you, your little legs were never going to cut it."
Max turned to see Nurf already less than a couple of yards away from him. For the first time in a long time, he felt scared. Nurf's pocket knife looked sharper than ever, even in the forest's poor lighting. Preston blocked his other escape route, advancing from his right. Although he wasn't a bully, Preston seemed to take a sick pleasure in watching Max's look of despair and smiled in anticipation. Max wondered what would happen if his trap failed, but he shook those intrusive thoughts and focused on his plan. To add realism to his act and prevent Preston from figuring that something wasn't right, he backed away from the pair until he was against a tree.
He froze after something impacted his right sleeve. He was glad to use loose clothing when he noticed what pierced his hoodie: Nurf's had thrown his pocket-knife and nailed Max's arm in place to prevent any unexpected escape.
"Fine you got me. Whatever, it's not a big deal." Max said with a scoff.
"Huh, even in this situation you still have the nerve to bluff in such a way"-Nurf got closer to Max, just a few inches away from breathing right on Max's face-"Impressive, but that won't help you. I'll make myself clear –no, transparent. Where are our sacks? If you tell us, I'll make this less painful." Nurf said. He clutched Max's hand between his big sausage fingers and began tightening his grip around them.
Max's almost bent over because of the pain. When Nurf got close to breaking his hand, Max hastily said, "waitwaitwait… I give up, but don't rip my hand from my arm."
Nurf relaxed his grip and allowed Max to take some rest. "It wasn't that hard, was it? Now, no tricks, guide us to where you hid them!" Nurf commanded before pulling out his pocket-knife from the tree.
Max told them to follow him, though Nurf demanded to go first. Max was careful to make adjustments to his course, just so Nurf wouldn't fall inside the hole upon setting foot on the clear, alerting Preston, who could mess up the situation with ease. He led them around the bushes and stopped where he guessed the snare trap would be. Nurf shoved him aside and advanced. Then, just a few seconds after Nurf got inside the clear, a zipping noise and a scream were heard. Max let out a fake gasp and dragged Preston inside the clear. There Nurf was suspended in the air, cursing while struggling to untie the rope tied around his ankle.
"How? NURF!, what happened?" Preston Asked.
"You will find out..."-Max rushed Preston and tackled him into a hole in the ground-"Congrats, you found it!" Max exclaimed. His side ached because of the impact with Preston.
"JUST WAIT UNTIL WE GET OUR HANDS ON YOU!" Nurf and Preston screeched, set on getting revenge and retaking the trail mix.
(Back in the mess hall)
"…so that's how I got this tasty treat"-Max took poured some of the trail mix onto his mouth-"Also, I left a note in Preston's stand, just so David and Gwen don't get too annoying. The usual."
"Wow, that was a lot to take in." Nikki concluded.
"Agreed, I guess we were too harsh with you, Max. Hey, thanks for thinking of us while you took the trail mix from them." Neil said. He scratched his neck and was ready to offer his apologies to Max for their fight in the morning.
"Don't sweat about it. Besides, this is where you guys come in-" Max was cutoff when the mess hall's doors were slammed open. In the door frame, Gwen glared at Max and behind her, David tried to do the same, but failed at looking intimidating. Gwen made a bee-line towards Max, not even noticing Space Kid's attempt at showing her his rocket toy.
Her lanky body was right in front of Max in less than a minute. She had a stern look and her hands on her hips. She stared-down at Max and remained silent until David moved to her side. She didn't want to deal with Max, but she couldn't let petty robbery pass; it was too much, even considering Max's usual behavior.
David read the mood and spoke first instead of Gwen. "Attention, Camp Campbell campers, we have some missing goods from the counselor's cabin. If anyone has seen some trail mix packages, then I invite them personally to come forward and be honest."
Gwen sighed in annoyance. "David, there's no need to tangle ourselves with this 'everyone is innocent until proven guilty' thing. It can only be Max; it's always Max." Gwen argued.
David disagreed and shook his head. "Come on, Gwen, this is not a good example for Camp Campbell's young minds. Due process is essential for a nice society, and what kind of counselors would-"
"Cut it. Just cut it. We don't have time to play detective. I know something is up and it smells…" Gwen interjected while glaring at Max, not even entertaining the idea of his innocence.
Max smirked, "Go on, search me. You won't find anything." Max smugly said before being picked up by Gwen. He was put against a wall and thoroughly searched by David, who found some traces of yellow dust, but nothing that could hint at Max being responsible from stealing the trail mix.
Gwen didn't believe it. She resolved to execute plan B. "You might think you've won this. Maybe you fooled David, but not me. I know for a fact you are behind this and if you think can get away with it, then you are mistaken"-She turned to the other campers, who had gathered in the tables nearby after they noticed someone was about to be in trouble—"We planned to hold a pizza party tonight, but, thanks to Max here, it will be canceled until we find David's trail mix."
All the campers groaned and some even cursed. Their sadness didn't last, as they turned to face the source of their pizza-less night: Max. In their eyes bitterness and annoyance, for Max and his trio had ruined things once again.
"Honesty is crucial, campers. I understand your disappointment, but it's measure that must be taken to ensure missing goods don't become commonplace"-David turned his face towards max and locked eyes with him-"Yet, I am sure the person who did this is going to be an example for all of us and make up for their mistakes. Have a wonderful day, kiddos!" David nodded, still focusing on Max with a mix of sadness and disappointment.
With their punishment set and having given their warning to the campers gathered at the mess hall, David and Gwen left the room. Nikki and Neil were beaten, though none trusted Gwen's accusations -they had heard Max's story and, besides, it wasn't stealing if you did it to the ones who stole it in the first place. Without saying anything, both Nikki and Neil agreed to help Max so he didn't get the full punishment from Nurf's and Preston's actions.. and maybe even convince Max to return the trail mix and save the Pizza night.
"...as I was saying, this is when you guys come in." Max said.