The Two Worlds of Sydnee Cameron Year 2 Episode 20: Retreat

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If you enjoy this episode and want to catch up on Year 1, you can start with Year 1, Episode 1: Winners and Losers or check out the List of Year 1 Episodes or read the Year 1 Synopsis.

Episode 20: Retreat

“What’s the retreat like?” I asked my best friend, Chris Clayton. It was the first day of spring break, and we stood in the church parking lot next to the minibus. A breeze fluttered the escaped hairs from my ponytail, and I wrapped my arms around my hoodie to keep the chill out. “You went last year. Think it’ll be the same?”

“Probably.” Chris glanced over his shoulder at a group of adults—the youth minister Mike and some parents. “Be even better if my dad wasn’t going.”

“What’s wrong with David going?”

“He’s my dad. He’ll be watching all the time.”

“So? Having your dad around is nice.”

“Nice?” Chris echoed the word like I’d said something crazy. But then his eyes widened. “You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” Now he was the one sounding crazy.

“For, you know, forgetting that your dad can’t come.”

“My dad? Alexander?” I hadn’t even been thinking about him. Should I have? Alexander had died only three-and-a-half months ago. A daughter wasn’t supposed to forget about her dad that quick. But Chris remembered Alexander and I didn’t.

I spun around and hurried onto the bus.

The rows of seats were mostly empty, but I spotted the real reason David had volunteered to be a chaperone. My cousin, Derrick Andrews.

“Hi.” I plopped down next to him.

“You lost?” Derrick’s eyes narrowed in a death glare that six months ago had me squirming. But now, his nine piercings and hair that changed color like a mood ring didn’t intimidate me.


Derrick stretched to look over the seat backs. “Plenty other seats.”

I ignored the hint. “I didn’t think you’d be excited about a church youth retreat.”

“Do I look excited?” He stared at me, mouth in a straight line, face expressionless.

“Your hair’s purple.”

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Your hair’s purple or blue when you’re in a good mood.”

“Maybe it’s a coincidence.”

“Nothing you do is a coincidence.”

“Then maybe I’m in a good mood because I’ve got a plan.” His mouth twisted into a grin that would’ve made the devil proud.

“Possible. You’ve stayed out of trouble for almost three months.”

“Since you punched me.”

“You sent a fake grade page to my—to Harold.” Remembering that Harold Cameron was my stepfather and not my father was still difficult nine months after meeting Alexander. I took a deep breath. “But I’m sorry.”

“No, you’re not. I deserved it.”

“You didn’t.”

“I did.”

Arguing with Derrick was pointless. “Do you have a plan for the retreat?”

“If I do, why would I tell you?”

“For the challenge of having someone try to stop you and still getting away with it.”

“You’re right. That would be fun.” A faraway look entered his eyes, and I’m sure it was my imagination, but his hair looked a little brighter.

“Or you could mess with everyone by pretending to have fun and participating.”

“I’ve never liked pretending. Or participating.”

“That’s why it would really shock everyone. But if you think it would be too hard to pull off . . .”

“You’re trying to manipulate me? Funny.” Derrick lowered his voice like he didn’t want anyone to overhear. “Stick with what you’re good at.”

“What exactly am I—“

“Hey.” Chris sat down across the aisle. “Did I say something that made you mad? Because I’m sorry.”

“That’s what he’s good at.” Derrick leaned around me. “Kissing up to Sydnee won’t win her back.”

Chris’s face darkened and his lips pressed together like he was trying not to say something that would land him in trouble before the bus left the parking lot.

I shoved Derrick against his seat and angled myself to block him from Chris. “I wasn’t mad. I just didn’t . . . I wasn’t thinking about Alexander, but you were. Maybe I should’ve been.”

Derrick made a noise behind my back. A snort? A laugh? Whatever the noise was, it wasn’t helpful.

I stood. “Can I sit with you?”

Chris slid over. “You’re not mad?”

“No. I just didn’t know what to say.”

“So you decided to talk to him instead?” Chris raised his chin to point at Derrick.

I glanced over my shoulder. Derrick was staring out the window, ignoring us. I lowered my voice anyway. “Don’t pay attention to the stupid stuff he says. Once you get past that, he’s fun to talk to.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Probably.” I leaned against the headrest and stared at the black ceiling. “Am I forgetting Alexander?”

“Since you’re talking about him, I’m going to say no, you’re not forgetting.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” I didn’t sound convinced. “I just don’t want it to be like he never existed.”

“Long as we’re stuck with him—“ Chris pointed at Derrick. “—no one’s going to forget your dad.”


I left my stuff in the girls’ cabin then left before I got caught up in talking about boys or hairstyles or what to wear to dinner. The air was warmer here than back home, but I still needed a hoodie. Not for long. Not if I found the basketball court.

I glanced around. Trees, trees, cement building, trees. I hadn’t seen a court on the walk to the cabin, but Chris hadn’t said if it was indoor or outdoor. Maybe someone would be in the building where we were supposed to meet for dinner.

I climbed the hill to the massive, two-story concrete building, entered the side door, and found the basketball court.

One end of the building was designated for the dining hall. A large window cut into the wall revealed a kitchen, and some of the parent-chaperones were already prepping. Upright and folded in half, cafeteria tables stood against another wall, and a half-dozen tables were set up off the court. If enough campers were here, they’d probably cover the court with tables. But our group wasn’t big enough, and that meant basketball all weekend.

Three dull orange balls huddled in a corner like waiting friends. Waiting for me. I picked up one and dribbled. The steady rubber thuds echoed off the metal beams. The basketball felt smooth, worn beneath my palm. I aimed at a net-less hoop. The ball soared through and bounced along the ground.

“Figured you’d be here.” Chris walked up behind me, grinning. “You can sense a basketball court from miles away.”

“Want to play?” I looked at Chris, Dean, and Joseph.

“What else would we do?” Chris asked. Dean and Joseph’s expressions echoed the response. I’d asked a dumb question.

A couple of eighth grade guys entered the cafeteria-gym. “Can we play?” Liam, the tallest—but still a couple inches shorter than me—asked.

“Yeah. Who else wants to play?” I raised my voice for the others entering. All the guys had sensed the basketball court. Or the food.

A few others wanted to play, including Andy Stewart, Abby’s older brother.

“So the five of us.” Chris circled his finger in the air, indicating himself, Dean, Joseph, Andy, and me. “Against the five of you?”

The ‘you’ was Liam and four other seventh- and eighth-grade guys.

“Fine, but we get the ball first.” Liam took the role of team captain.

We gave them the ball. It was only fair since their team was younger, shorter, and not as good as ours.

The game lasted until the cafeteria side of the room was full and Mike called us over.

“Want to finish the game later?” I asked, wiping the sweat off my forehead.

“Team’s aren’t even.” Liam sounded like a pouty kid giving excuses.

“You’re just saying that because you’re losing.” Chris was probably right, but so was Liam. The score was twenty-three to nine.

The room had gone silent, and Mike waited for us to sit, so I lowered my voice. “We’ll split up differently next time.”

Mike outlined the weekend and rules, someone prayed for the food, and a line formed in front of the window to the kitchen. The noise level rose, voices echoing off the cement walls, cement floor, and metal roof. I grabbed a hot dog, topped it with mustard, chose a bag of chips, then glanced at the tables.

Chris was walking to the table where Abby, Lilli, Joseph, Andy, and Dean sat talking and laughing. I was expected to join them, but the room was so loud and I didn’t feel like talking.

I walked to a table in the opposite direction.

“Why do you think we’re friends?” Derrick asked without looking up from his food.

“Because we both love math.” I sat next to him. “We both spent a lot of time with Alexander. We—”

“I meant, what have I done to make you think that I’d want to be friends with you?”

“Absolutely nothing.” I bit off a third of my hot dog. Derrick and I might not be friends exactly, but I didn’t think he really hated having me around.

Maci, Derrick’s friend, sat across from us, and some guy sat next to her. Friend? Boyfriend? Brother? They both had black, shiny hair. Not brushed-to-sleekness shiny, but maybe-shampooed-this-week shiny.

Derrick greeted them with a chin tilt. Maci and the guy replied with a head bob then glanced at me like wondering why I’d invaded their table.

With my sweaty shirt, piercings only in my ears, and not wearing any black, I didn’t belong. But I usually didn’t fit in anywhere for one reason or another, so I ate more hot dog and pretended no one noticed me.

“When’s all the kumbayah and praise Jesus and you’re-going-to-hell start?” The guy picked up his plastic cup and sniffed. “And is it safe to drink the Kool-aid?”

“It’s not like that.” Maci looked at Derrick. “Tell Cole it’s not like that.”

“It’s not like that.” Derrick echoed like a robot.

“Then what’s it like?” Cole glanced around the room and stopped on me. He narrowed his eyes. “’Cause I’m no do-gooder Jesus freak, and I’m not becoming one.”

Was it the sweaty hair or the lack of makeup that had me pegged as a do-gooder Jesus freak?

“I’ve told you, it’s not about doing good or being good.” Maci pushed her plate aside. “Explain it to him, Derrick.”

“No one’s going to make you do anything, commit to anything, or drink the Kool-Aid.” Derrick waved at Cole’s cup which wasn’t really Kool-Aid but store-brand fruit punch. I’d seen the bottle. “And it’s not about doing good or being good. It’s about acknowledging that you aren’t good enough and never will be, but God wants a relationship with you anyway. In this life and the next.”

“Man.” Cole shook his head, his face pinched like he was disappointed or maybe confused. “You really don’t look like a Jesus freak.”

“If you’re asking if I’m a Christian, I’m not.”

“You’re not?” Cole glanced at Maci for confirmation. She gave an I-don’t-get-it-but-it’s-true shrug. Cole looked back at Derrick. “Why not? You’re here; you know the answers.”

“Like I said, it’s about a relationship. And I’m not into relationships.”

I wanted to ask Derrick what he meant about not wanting a relationship with God, but not in front of Cole and Maci. Then dinner was over; we were guided into mandatory fun that gave way to a devotional and finally were herded off to bed. No time to talk to Derrick. No time to play basketball. No time for even a shower. No time for anything except whispering after lights out.

I fell asleep to the sounds of my girl friends—Abby and Lilli—talking about my guy friends—Dean and Joseph.


When I woke the next morning, the only sounds in the long cabin were steady inhales and exhales interrupted by an occasional snorty-snore.

I checked the time on my phone. Six forty-five. Breakfast wasn’t until nine.

I lay on my back and stared at the wooden slats of the top bunk. Fourteen slats. The mattress bulged between the middle ones.

Eight bunks on each side of the room; sixteen total. Thirty-two beds. Fifteen girls; three mom-chaperones. Fourteen unoccupied mattresses.

Now I was out of things to count and add or subtract. And it was only six-forty-six.

I rolled over and caught a whiff of musty mattress-and-sleeping-bag. Or maybe musty me. I needed a shower.

Showering and dressing wasted twenty-two minutes. Then I headed for the cafeteria-gym.

The gigantic room was empty. Dark. Holding the door open with one hand, I groped along the wall with the other for a light switch.

Found it.

Weak light struggled to cover the distance from the ceiling to me, but it was enough to see the basketballs in a corner. I picked up one.

Each slap-smack dribble echoed in the empty silence. I practiced my shots and rebounds, keeping a mental tally.

“Knew I’d find you here.”

Chris’s voice startled me, but the ball still soared through the metal hoop.

“What’s your score?”

“Forty-seven successes, twenty-three misses.”

“Let me guess, the misses were all from somewhere around here?” Chris stopped on the half-court line.

“Not all.” I caught up with the rolling ball. “Anybody else up? Think we can fit in a game before breakfast?”

“You mean before nine a.m.? I think you’re stuck with just me.”

“I was hoping for something more challenging, but I guess you’ll do.” I dribbled in front of Chris. “Want to warm up a little? Take a few practice shots?”

“I don’t need to warm up or practice.” Chris stole the ball and dribbled around me.

“Why?” I shadowed Chris, crowding him. “Because practice is a waste of time when you’re going to lose?”

“Who’s going to lose?” Chris sent the ball sailing toward the goal. It bounced off the rim.

I caught the rebound. “Like I said—you.”

The game and teasing continued until the air filled with the scents of bacon and eggs and the sounds of people’s voice.

Mike ended our game with the breakfast prayer.

“Who won?” Liam asked.

I sat almost across from him and next to Chris, my stomach rumbling and mouth watering. “Doesn’t matter.”

“So he won?” Liam pointed at Chris.

“If I’d won, Sydnee would’ve said so.” Chris shoved a whole strip of bacon in his mouth.

“It was only by two points. No big deal.” I dug into my breakfast.

“You beat him?” Liam pointed his fork at me then Chris. “Do you beat him a lot?”

“Sometimes.” I shrugged.

“Most of the time,” Chris said.

“And you’re okay with that?” Liam stared at Chris and made a face. Liam wouldn’t be okay with losing to me.

“She’s been winning since I was twelve. I’m over it.” Chris sounded serious and sincere. “I wouldn’t be half as good if I didn’t have to work so hard to keep her from humiliating me.”

“Losing to a girl is humiliating.” Liam said this almost under his breath, but not quite.

“You lost to a girl yesterday,” Chris said.

“My team lost. And the teams weren’t fair.”

“Yeah, sure.” Chris chuckled. “One-on-one, you and Sydnee. Bet you wouldn’t lose by just a point.”

“Okay, let’s go.” Liam stood.

“Uh, let’s not?” I looked from Liam to Chris. “I don’t play to prove girls can beat boys. Or to prove I can beat anyone.”

I grabbed my half-full plate and stormed off.

“Not you again.” Derrick groaned, but I didn’t take it personally. He wasn’t a morning person, so that groan might’ve meant Derrick wished he was still in bed.

“If it makes you feel better, you weren’t my first choice.” I stabbed my fork in my scrambled eggs again and again, pulverizing the yellow mess. “But I did want to talk to you.”

“Lucky me.”

“Last night, you said you didn’t want a relationship with God. Why?” I pushed my plate away. I’d killed the appetizing in my breakfast. “You told me before that you believe in God and the Bible. If you believe, why don’t you want to do something about it?”

Derrick stared into his cup of orange juice. He didn’t have a plate in front of him, but he never ate breakfast.

Had he fallen asleep? I angled my head to see his face. Nope, eyes open.

“Something’s expected in a relationship.” Derrick turned his head. Past the puffy, droopy, sleepy eyelids, his eyes were bright, alert, and swirling with determination and pain. “God’s not the government and grace isn’t a welfare or unemployment check. You can’t keep doing the same thing, being the same thing, living the same thing. He wants—how do people say? He wants your heart? There are some things I don’t want to give up.”

“Like what?” I figured he meant his love of hacking, even if he’d mostly quit because of a contract he’d signed with Alexander’s game company. Or maybe he meant smoking, though I hadn’t smelled cigarettes on his clothes in months.

“I hate my dad.”

“Oh.” I probably should’ve expected that, but I’d forgotten about my uncle Ian in the eight months Derrick and Joseph had been living with the Claytons. Like I forgot about my mother when I spent months without her in my life. “You know, God can help you not—“

“No.” Derrick cut me off with a knife-sharp word—sharper than the plastic knives provided with breakfast. “I don’t want God’s help to stop hating him. I want to hate him.”

“I guess I can understand that.” I spoke slowly, processing. “When I met Alexander last summer, I was really angry for a long time. I wanted to punish him and everyone else who had lied. But it didn’t make me feel better.”

“Did it make you feel worse?”


“That’s the difference between your life and mine. Nothing can make my life more miserable.”

“Even now? Creating a game for Alexander’s company and living with the Claytons? Is your life still miserable?”

“In four months, my dad will be moving back to the States, and Joseph and I will be moving back in with him. And life will go right back to what it always was.”

“You didn’t answer my question. Is your life still miserable?”

Derrick pressed his lips together.

“Even if you move back with your family, that doesn’t mean you have to give up everything.” I emphasized that ‘if’ because I really hoped my cousins wouldn’t have to leave. “You’ll still have me and the Claytons in your life. You’ll still have the contract with Liven.”

“No, I won’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I can’t live with him and not violate my contract.”

I didn’t know the details of Derrick’s contract with Liven Games, but Joseph had told me that Derrick couldn’t make a grade lower than a 100 on anything in any class. His computers were checked weekly for what websites he visited and evidence of hacking. But even with that, Derrick had managed to create a fake grade book webpage. The consequences were losing his computer. The consequence for trying to hide what he’d been doing online was losing his computer for twice as long.

I wasn’t into computer gaming—playing or creating—but without a computer, Derrick couldn’t create the game.

“I guess you’re right then.” I stood and picked up my plate. “If you choose to hate your dad over a relationship with God, your life will be miserable.”

I threw away the remains of my breakfast and left the cafeteria-gym. I could kind of understand Derrick. I struggled with wanting to punish Mother sometimes, like when she’d talked about Alexander the day of his funeral. Or when she listed all the ways I wasn’t pretty. Or when she insisted I visit her in Florida over spring break then ignored me.

Now I was getting angry. I took a deep breath. This spring break, she hadn’t summoned me to Florida. Something happy. Thank you, Lord.

“Okay, this time you are mad at me.” Chris caught up with me outside.

It took me a second to remember why. “Yeah, I am.”

“I’m sorry. But c’mon, wasn’t Liam annoying you too, with his no-girl-could-ever-beat-me attitude?”

“Yeah.” I stopped on the path circling the cafeteria-gym. “But I didn’t need you to challenge him to a game against me.”

“I know. But you’d beat him by way more than two points.”

“I don’t want to punish somebody or hate them because they’re trying to make me miserable.”

“Uh, okay.” Chris looked at me sideways, leaning away a little, like eyeing a strange cat. “I don’t hate Liam. I just think he was acting like a jerk.”

“I know.” I stopped by a picnic table and sat on the bench. “But I don’t want people or how I feel about people to control my actions. And I don’t want sitting with someone different to mean I’m mad.”

“Or playing basketball to mean you’re trying to prove something?”

“Yes. And I don’t want not thinking about Alexander to mean I’m forgetting.”

“You’re not.” Chris sat next to me and wrapped his arm around my shoulder in an awkward hug.

“Maybe I don’t think about him because I don’t want the pain of missing him.”

“You’re thinking about him right now. Do you miss him?”

I nodded.

“Does it hurt too much?”

I assessed the pain in my heart. Sometimes, missing Alexander felt like getting my hand slammed in a car door—or my heart, if that were possible. But right now, the pain was no worse than having my fingers stepped on by Chris’s seven-year-old brother, Jamie. “It hurts, but my fingernails won’t turn black and die.”

Chris smiled like my answer made perfect sense. And maybe it did. Pain, annoyance, anger, none of that was bad, as long as it didn’t turn your heart black and let it die.

How far gone was Derrick’s heart?


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