Green Paper Lantern
Ah, summer camp. A time for sweaty palms, greasy hair, flies buzzing too close to your food, and chatting the evening away while sitting next to a fire. Reynolds Summer Camp has all these regularly-scheduled wonders and more.
But you know what my favorite part of summer camp is? (Don’t tell Derek. Or any of my other cabin mates, for that matter.)
The best feeling at camp is when the camp counselors pack up for the night. The other children return to their dorms and climb into their beds. Nobody notices me slip out the door, out of the building, and onto the grass fields. Then, as I kick back and rest my arms behind my head, the stars ignite. Constellations light up the sky, each star twinkling in their own pattern.
I know it sounds dumb. It sounds really sappy, and, quite frankly, sad. But I love watching the stars’ light grow brighter with each passing night. When I look at the stars, I know, somehow, somewhere, one of those stars is looking back at me…
One of those stars is growing brighter…
Oh, shoot, wait a sec…
Oh, dang, this thing’s getting too close…!
Holy frick, it’s coming!!!
IT’S HEADING RIGHT FOR ME!!!
AND IT’S…huh. It’s green.
I leapt from my stargazing spot as the emerald meteor smashed into the ground. I opened my eyes to the sight of hazy green smoke lifting from the crater. I clambered over to examine it. (Hey, if something is gonna destroy my personal spot, I’m gonna get a little touchy).
At the very heart of the split-open rock, I found the source of its green energy…
A finger puppet?
“AHH!” I bolted up from my bed. The cool summer night’s breeze blew through my window. I kicked off my sheets and scrambled over to the window.
My spot was safe. No crazy paper asteroids.
I admit, I’ve had some really crazy dreams in my life. But that one…
Nah, that one kinda sucked. Goodnight, my trusty journal! Back to bed!
The sun rose over the quad as I took my morning jog around campus. Camp activities wouldn’t start for another hour, leaving me with lots of time to focus on what’s most important in the world. I whipped out a comic book and some modeling clay, and sat down on the opposite end of the university building, away from where students would begin to set up shop.
“You okay, Stuart?” Derek said from beside me.
“Sheesh!” I cried. “Who are you trying to be? The Flash?? How’d you get here so quickly?”
Derek sighed. “My dorm’s kinda screwed up, right now. They’re trying to fix a water pipe or something. I just thought I’d try…whatever the heck it is you do every morning.”
I shrugged. “Go for a jog? Mold some playdough? Read…”
Derek snatched the comic from my hands. “Oh, Batman. Nice.”
“Gimme that.” I elbowed him playfully and turned to the splash page in the center of the book. The Dark Knight stood atop a skyscraper overlooking Gotham as lightning cracked in the background.
“I am vengeance. I am the night!” I proclaimed.
Derek frowned. “You’re kidding me, right? Sorry to break it to you, buddy, but you’re no Batman.”
I scoffed. “I-I know, but, like…How could you not wanna be?”
“I’ll give you that.” Derek reclined. “Sweet car, slick cape, lots of girls…bad girls…”
“Sorry.” Derek shook his head. “But yeah, Batman’s like the coolest dude ever.”
“And I’m here modeling some clay…” I crushed my crudely molded Metallo sculpture, folded it onto itself, and began forming something new.
“You know, you never answered my question,” Derek said. “Are you okay?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why shouldn’t I be? I do these walks every day. I’m not lonely or anything.”
“Alright, alright,” he raised his arms in surrender. “Easy, bro. I’m gonna go set up the breakfast bar. The reds are gonna throw a fit if I don’t. And hey, if you stop over, I’ll swipe you some of those waffles you like before the orange guys take everything.”
“Mmm. Thank you!”
“Later, bro!” Derek ran off to the other side of the building.
I slumped against the wall, lifting up my newest clay creation–Superman, fists thrust out in front of him, cape billowing in the wind.
The big blue boy scout.
Man, I wish…
I wish I could be Superman.
My thoughts betrayed my eager heart.
You can’t be him. You will never be him. You know what you did.
I exhaled slowly. Being left alone with one’s thoughts can be both a blessing and a curse. But today?
It was a curse.
I walked back over to the main quad. Derek’s breakfast pavilion was in full swing. Students from every class–red, green, orange, blue, indigo, and yellow–were chowing down on steaming bacon and freshly made pancakes.
“Hey, Stu!” Derek called over the crowd. “You want anything? I got those waffles…”
“I’m fine!” I said. “Mr. Owah wants me to do the initiation tour for some new campers!”
“Ah, man…” He shook his head as he flipped a flapjack. “How long’s that gonna be? You still planning on helping me clean all this stuff up, right?”
“Totally! I’ll be there!” I stepped away from the quad and approached the haphazardly-crafted wood sign for Reynolds Summer Camp. A small group of campers, maybe a year younger than myself, were gathered underneath the sign.
“Hey, guys!” I said. “So, are you all here for the tour?”
Nobody responded. One person typed in a flurry on their phone. A moment later, all the others laughed.
“Alright, c’mon…” I clapped. “Put down the phones. Reynolds Summer Camp is all about becoming one with nature!”
Their eyes lifted from their phones in sync as they glared me down. “No.”
I took a step back. “Annnnnnd, let’s begin!”
I gestured towards the college building as my group begrudgingly followed. “As you may know, our camp is based on campus. I like to call it the CAMP-us.”
Nobody laughed. I kept walking forward, biting my lip.
I led our band from the entrance to the hustling and bustling quad, from firefly forest, where we play our nightly game, to the lantern lounge, where a flurry of multicolored paper lanterns illuminate our supper.
“Each of our campers is given a personality test upon entering the camp,” I said. “It will help us to determine which group of the camp you belong in…”
“You mean like in Harry Potter?” A camper interrupted.
“Um, yeah. Kinda!” I said. “There are six different teams in our camp. Each team brings a different set of strengths to our activities. There’s the orange team…”
“I’m orange! Let me be orange! And the other colors too!” A camper shrieked.
“Well, yep,” I said, “orange is the color of greed. The good thing about your team is, you guys have swiped so many things for yourselves over time that you’re always equipped and prepared for any activity! Anyways, the next team is blue…”
“Oh, I hope that’s mine!” A camper piped. “Blue is my favorite color.”
“Well then, good for you!” I said. “Blue is the color of hope! Hope is always essential for believing in yourself and your team to secure your victory. Then, there’s the red…”
“Oh, hurry up, already!!!” A camper groaned. “I wanna get back to my game.”
I sighed. Glancing at my watch, I realized that I too needed to speed up the process. “Yep, red’s the color of anger. Anger can be a strong tool that helps campers to push forward in activities when the going gets tough. But, um, yeah, I’ll hurry it up. Indigo’s for the compassionate campers, yellow’s for those who strike fear…”
“Which color are you?” A camper asked.
I took a deep breath. “I’m green. The last color of the bunch. The green team is focused on controlling their will. Will power is their greatest power in group activities. But a good camper has to have elements of each team’s qualities to be a truly well-rounded team player. Now, whichever dorm room has your color painted on its door will also house your cabin mates. Go on and enjoy! And don’t forget, tonight is your first group activity: ultimate gaga ball!”
“ULTIMATE gaga ball?” A camper yelped.
“Yeah! It’s amazing! Anyways, I’ll catcha later!” I ran off toward the pavilion as fast as I could.
“You’re late.” Derek placed the last of the dried dishes into a plastic box. “You could’ve just said you wouldn’t be able to make it.”
“I didn’t know those kids were gonna take so long.” I grabbed the box and carried it with me as I walked with Derek inside the college building.
“Look, I get that you’re on this…this personal journey of growth,” Derek said, “but a big part of growing up is assuming responsibility.”
“I know.” I set down the box in the kitchen. “I’m working on it.”
“Work harder.” Derek held the door for me. “This is the fifth time you’ve stood me up like this.”
“Is it really?” I stepped out of the building and back onto the grass. “Gee wiz, I’m sorry, bro.”
“All’s forgiven. Like always…” Derek mumbled.
I winced. Memories of another time came flooding back. I shrugged them off. “Alright, well then, what’s your next task?”
“I’m serious.” Derek turned his head to the porta-potties at the edge of the woods.
I shuddered. “Okay, fine. I’ll do them for you.”
Derek’s eyes softened. “Really? You sure?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “Growing up means stepping out of your comfort zone.”
“Fair enough.” He wiped his forehead with his sleeve. “Don’t forget about gaga ball tonight.”
“Believe me, I’ll be there.” I smiled. “Right after I…y’know…”
I stepped towards the toilets as one last exasperated thought came into my mind.
Why won’t they just let us use the freaking indoor bathrooms?
Ultimate gaga ball has a very simple premise: like traditional gaga ball, the goal is to avoid letting your legs get hit with a ball, while spiking it towards others’ legs. Similar to dodgeball, but a little trickier. Everyone goes for the feet.
What makes ultimate gaga ball so ultimate is the fact that not only is it played in the vast and dark expanse of the firefly forest, but it involves multiple balls flying back and forth as opposed to a singular ball. Over time, camp counselors begin to close in, making the gameplay arena smaller and smaller until it resembles a traditional gaga ball set-up. But not everything’s fun and games.
Believe me, ultimate gaga ball is for the elite.
I ducked under a log as a projectile whooshed past my head. I leapt over the log, dodging yet another ball as I landed to my feet. I clasped onto a ball and chucked it towards Brett, one of the red team’s campers. He roared with rage, but a second ball to the legs sent him tumbling down the hill.
“Great shot!” I exclaimed.
Jamie hopped up next to me. “Technically, team leader, you already had him out. I just helped with the post-game rampaging part.”
“Ever the compassionate one, I see…” I tossed a ball towards a yellow camper. He leapt over the ball and grabbed it in a single, swift movement. He threw it at Jamie, who tumbled into the bushes.
I narrowed my eyes. Charging for him, I grabbed the ball he threw at me in mid-air and spiked it at his legs, taking him out easily. Unfortunately, this move had given away my position. A swarm of red and yellow campers surrounded me, led by their own team leader.
“Derek!” I waved. “I should’ve known they’d pick you to lead.”
“What can I say?” He smirked. “Green’s not my color.”
I rushed him, jumping over a flurry of balls as I slid between Derek’s legs. A stray ball hit Derek on the shin.
“Really?” He growled at his teammate. “Thanks, Billy.”
“No problem!” Billy beamed. “It doesn’t count, y’know.”
I grabbed a ball and ran. As I bolted down the hill, I caught the first sight of camp counselors dragging in tables to narrow the playing field.
I smiled. “Down here, you guys!”
“Get him!” An orange student yelled. “The game ends when we take out the team leader!”
I ran through the stream as balls rained down on me. I kicked my foot out to avoid getting hit. One ball brushed against the tip of my shoelace. I inhaled sharply. Running for the farthest clearing, I turned around. The enemy was closing in. Fast.
I lifted my dodgeball in the air. “Looks like you caught me, fellas!”
Derek grinned, winding back his throwing arm. “Sorry, buddy.”
“SURPRISE!!!” A whirlwind of green, blue, and indigo overtook the company of red, yellow, and orange. My reinforcements had arrived.
“How long have you guys been waiting over here?” Derek cried, amusedly. He stepped in front of his fellow campers. “I mean, sheesh! You’ve gotta be covered in bristles.”
I took my chance. Rushing towards Derek with more momentum than I’d intended, I chucked my ball at his feet.
Slamming to the ground harder than we’d expected, Derek howled.
“Oh, crap! Are you alright??” I ran up to him.
“BACK OFF!!!” he yelled. I took a step back. The camp counselors rushed to his aid as thunder rumbled in the distance. I bolted towards the dorm rooms as it started to rain.
“It was an accident, I swear.” My knee jiggled as I tried to recount the situation to the school nurse. “He’s my best friend. I never meant to…”
“You’re lucky. It appears that he only sprained his ankle.” The nurse rose from her seat. “He’ll be out of commission for a little while. He won’t be able to walk without crutches for a couple of weeks. But this is far better than the alternative. He easily could have broken his leg. Did you ever think of that before you charged at him?”
“I…I didn’t think…”
“You didn’t think.” The nurse stated. “You were acting impulsively and recklessly. Need I remind you of the last time your recklessness…?!”
“No.” I stood up. “I remember.”
Derek stepped out of the back room, hobbling on crutches as he made his way past me. His gaze never wavered from the door as he left.
“Look, you’re a good kid, Stuart Jones,” the nurse said, softly. “Clean up your act, for all our sakes.”
I stepped out of the nurse’s office and trudged back towards my dorm room.
I stopped at the door. Out the window, I watched as the clouds started to clear the way for starry skies.
I ran outside, drinking in the smell of dew and the touch of wet grass. I sat in the damp green field, alone.
“Is this my fault?” I said, aloud. “Why can’t I do better? Why can’t I learn??”
My fist pounded against the grass, sending drops of water flying. “Why don’t I grow?”
A light flicked on in the distance. I rubbed my eyes. Derek’s hideaway.
“I need to make things right.” I turned away from the stars and ran for my friend’s secret cabin.
A clatter from inside confirmed that the briskly-installed cabin was in use.
I peered into the door. “Derek, I’m so sorr…”
It was Derek. But he wasn’t on crutches. He…he was…
A pair of headphone wires dangled from his ears. He grooved and jumped and shook his rump.
I stepped back. “What?”
Derek turned around. I ducked.
He peered out his window. I held my breath.
As he turned back around, I scurried back over to my dorm room.
Derek was faking his injury. That I knew. What I didn’t know was…why?
I squashed the clay clump that formerly resembled Green Arrow and Skippy. Then the one which looked like Aquaman and Aqualad, and, lastly, Batman and Robin.
As I emerged from my dorm for the morning, I was greeted by the rumblings of a crowd in the quad. Derek sat in the center of the gathering. One camper fanned Derek’s face while another, obviously irritated grunt from the red team fed him grapes.
“Hey, Dee!” I approached him. “I hope you’re feeling better. Sorry about all the drama yesterday. But, man, this is a sick set-up! I bet that, on the inside, you’re dancing for joy!”
Derek shifted in his seat. “If you’re here to apologize, you’re off to a poor start, buddy.”
“Look, man, I just wanna make amends.”
“You did this to me.” Derek droned. “I’ve been the victim of your carelessness for years. I’m done putting up with you.”
I recoiled. “Hey, I thought you said you forgave me.”
“I forgave…” Derek clasped his crutches and walked over to me slowly. “But I didn’t forget.”
“None of us did.” Billy stepped forward. Even Jamie, too. “You’ve been a poor team player…”
Derek looked me in the eyes. “…And a bad friend.”
I snatched his crutches.
I hate to admit it, but I played right into his hand. Derek crumpled to the floor. Camp counselors circled around us.
Mr. Owah’s large boots clomped towards me. “Mr. Jones, that is enough! I don’t know what it is that’s been going on with you lately, but it has to stop. I’m sorry, Stuart, but you have to leave. Now.”
In all honesty, I didn’t think it was possible to get kicked out of summer camp. Heck, we have two whole teams centered around greedy and grumpy kids!
But, surprise surprise, I jumped into danger without taking a single second to evaluate the situation first. Nothing’s changed since the gaga ball game…or the last year…or that very first time I got Derek and myself into trouble. The first time I faced the white hot reality of life. The flames of judgement.
For once, as I tilted my face up to the skies, I found only a single star to light my path.
There are moments in life where an individual faces a great choice between two life-altering paths. A choice, perhaps, between good and evil. A time when a man either learns to grow, or decides to run.
I was done running from my past. From my fears. From the fire.
I had to clear my name. But I wouldn’t do it impulsively. I needed a plan.
The next week flew by in the blink of an eye. Summer outside of Reynolds was alien to me, not that it much mattered. My plan was finally in motion. It was ultimate gaga ball night.
The shadows clung to me as I slithered past the wooden sign at the entrance. I caught a glimpse of a light turning on in Derek’s hideaway. I ignored the impulse to go check it out and slipped into the firefly forest.
It was like having a personal laser show.
Fireflies blinked in and out of existence throughout the branches. I ran through a row of twinkling trees, like a child would run through a lane of Christmas trees in wintertime. I set up shop between two hulking oak trees. It was a long hour before the other students started to gather on the other end of the forest for their game. Derek sat on the sidelines as Jamie and Billy led the opposing teams in a wild game of gaga. I crept over to Derek’s lawn chair and chucked a wad in my hand into his lap.
“What the…” He grabbed the ball of modeling clay and cracked it open like that split-open meteor from my dream. Inside the clay sat a smiling origami finger puppet in full superhero regalia. “Green Lantern?”
“Hey, Derek.” I raised my hands in surrender.
Derek’s eyes narrowed, then softened as he feigned a smile. “Oh, it’s you. I had a feeling you’d show up, again. You’re so impulsive.”
“Why are you doing this?” I knelt down next to him. “Why are you faking your sprain?”
Derek’s eyes gleamed. “C’mon, buddy. Why wouldn’t I? I get premium treatment, everybody’s attention, a great view of the gaga fight…It’s funny, you gave me the idea.”
“Yeah! When we were talking about Bruce Wayne. How he gets all the cool stuff, and the cars, and the girls, and everything he could ever want because his parents died. So I thought, hey, maybe I could stage a little tragedy of my own.”
“Okay, A, that’s evil.” I shook my head. “B, that really wasn’t the point of our conversation.”
“That’s what I got out of it.”
“Bruce Wayne’s, like, a billionaire! And a superhero! He doesn’t have all those gadgets and gizmos because people felt sorry for him!! He had to train for years with these crazy monk dudes!”
“I saw that movie. It was boring.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m guessing your favorite was…”
“Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?” Derek giggled.
I stepped back. “You’ve changed.”
Derek smiled. “Me? Naw. I haven’t changed. You make such a big deal out of growing up and looking inward. I don’t need any of that stuff. I’ve got everything I need right here.”
“Well, then, I’m sorry.” I grabbed his crutches. “But I’ve gotta go do something impulsive.”
Derek’s nostrils flared. He ran at me.
I scrambled under branches and over logs as Derek’s feet pounded on my shadow. Balls from the other campers were flying everywhere. I smirked. My oak tree set-up was still intact. I slid under a perched log and tossed Derek’s crutches up into the briskly-tied up net above our heads.
“What…did you…do?” Derek came closer. “This isn’t impulse.”
“I’d like to think of it as a little bit of good, a pinch of bad, some growth and introspection, a little bit of planning, and a whole lot of willpower.” I smirked.
“Derek!!” Mr. Owah exclaimed. “My, my! It appears you have made a miracle recovery!”
Derek’s cheeks flushed. “Uhh…yeahhh…I barely believe it, myself…?”
“Go to my office,” Mr. Owah snapped. “I’ll be right in with you. But first, I have to apologize to Mr. Jones…”
The lot of us followed. Derek had a sizable lead on us, but it wasn’t hard to see where he was headed.
The lantern lounge.
A bright array of multicolored paper lanterns lit up the way as Derek climbed inside the tiny window to the small hut. Billy and Jamie tried to squeeze inside to catch him, as well. I paused a moment, walking with Mr. Owah to the back end of the hut. The door opened as Derek’s eyes widened.
“Settle down, Dee.” I said. “Let’s talk about this.”
Derek stepped backward in fear, accidentally nudging a paper lantern off the wall. A flame licked the papery walls of the hut.
I gasped. Not again. Not again!
The lantern lounge burned. Blazing infernos of past and present melded in my brain.
“Someone get the water hose!” Mr Owah cried.
My legs decided it would be the perfect time to pull a Derek and stay put. I could barely open my mouth to speak.
Then I saw them.
Jamie and Billy. And those young campers who never stopped looking at their phones, barely even noticing the situation in front of them.
They were trapped.
I took a step forward. Then another one. Then another.
Mustering every ounce of willpower I had, I carefully entered the hut and helped my friends escape out the front window. The last person in the hut was me.
The window collapsed. The walls started straining. I caught a glimpse of somebody returning with the water hose.
I looked down at my closed hand. Inside, all balled up but still just as smiley, was my little origami Green Lantern. John Stewart, in particular.
I closed my eyes.
It was pretty poetic, to be fair. I started this whole mess with a fire. It felt right that it should end with one, too.
The water flushed out the flames. I stood, drenched, in the heart of a crumpled, sopping mess of paper mâché. When I looked over to the hose, I realized it was abandoned.
“Derek?” I called. No answer.
I ran towards the forest.
“Hey, Dee! Are you over here…?” I stepped into the winding thistles and bristles and jaggedy bushes beyond our normal play area. Then I found him.
“H-hey.” Derek leaned over one side of the fence. “Are you okay? I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for…I didn’t…the fire…”
“No, it’s okay.” I put a hand on his shoulder. “Hey, we’re even now, right?”
Derek sniffled. “Yeah. I guess so.”
My brow furrowed. He was halfway over the fence. “Where are you going?”
Derek frowned. “I’m leaving, Stu. This isn’t the place for me. I’ve screwed things up here. There’s no way they’ll have me back after all this.”
“They will! They will!”’
“Quit it.” Derek stepped over the fence and hopped to the other side. “They kicked you out for taking my crutches. I made up this huge lie and nearly burned up the whole place!”
“That sounds pretty familiar.” I took a step towards him. “I’m still here.”
“You grew up,” Derek murmured. “No. Not me. I’m outta here.”
“Hey! C’mon!” I said. “We’ve been best friends since our very first summer. You’re making a major mistake.”
“No.” Derek looked me in the eye, nodding at my origami puppet as he did so. “The mistake I made…that I’ve been making…is still being your friend.”
They jabbed my heart, those words. I stepped back and put a hand on the fence post. “Are you sure about this?”
“I ain’t growing, dude.” Derek walked on into the abyss. “Maybe I would have. I should never have stayed with you. I blame you.”
I sighed. “Goodbye, Derek.”
Our words echoed into the night.
And so, another summer fades into autumn. My fellow campers are safe from harm, I stopped Derek’s villainy for the time being, and I’ve made a little paper friend.
The night sky’s alight with stars, each one growing brighter and brighter. People can grow, too. Some grow out of darkness. Others grow into their destiny. Some people reject that growth, and fall disparedly to the wayside. I choose to grow, no matter the cost.
I’m too dark to be the Man of Steel, but I’m not cool enough to be the Caped Crusader.
I’m not the big blue boy scout. I’m not always truthful. I believe in mercy more than justice. I’m not Superman. But, for the first time in my life, I realize…I don’t have to be.
I believe in hope. I believe in love. I believe in friendship and unity. My friend showed me his true colors today. But I won’t stop until he knows I’m still fighting for him. No matter how deep down this path he goes, no matter how dark he becomes, I will always be there for him. To lend him a hand. To give him a pathway out of his misery. I won’t stop until he grows past this phase and joins me at my side. Superman wouldn’t be like this. He’d send his villain to jail and hope he’d be rehabilitated. Batman would do the same. I know this may seem wrong. Maybe it is. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I truly think Derek can change. I believe it with every fiber of my being, and I’m willing to give him mercy until that day. That’s just who I am. Who Green Lantern is. Our will is strong. We will not fall.
The past is behind me. The future is nigh. My power is blinding, just like the night sky. The summer is gone, the fall is near. But my destiny has never been so clear.
In folded day, in crumpled night, no evil shall escape my sight. Let those who choose to rage and fight beware my puppet–Green Paper Lantern’s light!