Sam’s second summer at Camp Suck a Nuck went much like the first. Instead of Peter the Beast, Nicky, a waterfront instructor who swam at Michael Phelp’s high school shared the bunk duties with Francesco from Perugia. He spent as much time as possible in the stables with Skunkface Bob, who treated Sam like a favored nephew, always doing nice things for him like giving him extra riding time or slipping him candy. From Skunkface, Sam learned the art of dressage, and practiced the jumps, turns, and gaits required for competing in shows. When Sam wasn’t riding, he swam in the lake, learned to play tennis and shoot a bow, and fired rifles at the range. In the evenings, he and the other boys roasted marshmallows over campfires and listened to more of Francesco’s Foxy Knoxy ghost stories.
“I can’t wait to see Tiger,” he said to Kevin Lowry as the plane parked at the jet way. Over Dan Spencer’s objections, and with Faith’s support, Tiger had replaced the wandering Dander. A striped tabby barely ten weeks old when they picked him up from the shelter last Halloween, Tiger tripled in size by the time Sam left for camp. The kitten proved quite the hunter, initially by retrieving catnip-filled toy mice from under the living room couch and then real ones snatched from Sam’s back yard and the Parkers’.
After last year, Sam was nervous about seeing Tiger again. He had prayed every night before going to sleep that Tiger would remain safe throughout the summer. He’d thought about it long and hard, and decided that his dad was right. Dander had been a stray. For all Sam knew, the mangy white cat might have wandered back to his home. Maybe a little boy lived there who missed Dander as much as Sam did. Thinking so made Sam feel better.
He didn’t think Tiger would wander off like Dander. Sam loved Tiger with every ounce of his being before leaving for camp. He fed him, played with him every day, and slept with him every night. Tiger knew no home other than Sam’s and had no reason to wander off. Sam pictured the tabby rolling on his Spider-man bed cover and crossed his fingers.
As soon as the plane door opened, Sam ran down the jet way and into his mom’s waiting arms.
“Sam!” Faith planted a big kiss on his cheek and hugged him for what seemed like forever.
Finally, he pulled away. “Mom, that’s enough. Geez, I’m eleven years old, remember?”
“Hey, Sam. I’m glad you’re home.” Dan pulled him close and tousled his hair.
Sam studied his dad. He wore jeans and an old T-shirt with writing about some guy named Jim Beam, not a suit. His eyes were bloodshot and he hadn’t shaven. “You growing a beard?”
Dan’s hand fingered his chin. “No, son. Just a long, lazy weekend.”
“I think you’d look cool with a beard, Dad. Can I touch it?” Sam ran his fingers up Dan’s cheek, against the grain.
“No he would not,” Faith said in a tone daring disagreement.
Well, if his mom didn’t like the beard, that settled it. Sam expected his dad to shave by morning’s light. He turned his thoughts to his snuggly tabby. “Hey Dad, how’s Tig–“
Before Sam could finish his question, Dan started down the concourse without even a glance back, weaving crookedly between luggage-toting passengers. He nearly bumped into several.
Faith grabbed Sam’s hand and lugged him after Dan. “Your father’s in a hurry. The Parkers are due in half an hour.”
“Bye, Kev,” Sam shouted to the rapidly receding Kevin Lowry. “I’ll call you tomorrow!”
At the car Faith held out her hands. “I should drive, Dan.”
“Whatever.” He fumbled in his pockets for the starter and dropped it in her outstretched hand.
Sam was astounded. His mom never drove the Beamer. “Why are you driving?”
“Your father’s had a long day. Buckle up, Sam.”
“Okay.” Something weird was going on. “Mom? How’s Tiger?”
“You first, Sam. I want to hear everything. Your letters were even shorter this year. One time, you mailed us an empty envelope.”
Sam felt his stomach sink. Last year, his parents had avoided his questions about Dander too. “Please, Mom. Just tell me, is he okay?”
He saw tears welling in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Sam. Tiger, he … he didn’t make it.”
A lump caught in Sam’s throat. Somehow, he’d just known what his mom was going to say. First Dander and now Tiger. He loved them both so much. “What happened?”
Faith lowered her voice. “He wandered off and a car nailed him. It was over quick, Sam. Tiger wasn’t in any pain.”
Sam lowered his head into the crook of his elbow and let the tears flow shamelessly. Losing Tiger was almost like losing his best friend. “Oh no, not Tiger.”
“Yeah, it was a bad day all the way around,” Dan growled. Then he leaned his head against the window and within seconds he was snoring.
Sam picked up his head. “What’s with Dad? He’s acting weird.”
“Nothing to worry about, Sam. I told you he’s had a long day. The truth is he’s had a long summer. He’ll be fine.”
“I don’t get it. He always shaves. He’s always telling me cleanliness is next to Godliness. He was walking funny in the airport too and he always drives the Beamer, not you. What’s going on?”
Faith rolled down her window and lit a cigarette, astonishing Sam. He’d never seen her smoke. “Don’t worry, Sam. Everything will be all right. I’ll get your father straightened out. Just remember, he loves you very much.”
“I’m not a little kid any more, Mom. You can tell me what’s going on. Open communication, remember?”
She took a deep drag and flicked the half-smoked cigarette out the window rather than use the car’s spotless ashtray. “Your father has a new job, Sam.”
Sam gulped. His dad had been a sales big shot at the company for so long he could barely imagine him doing anything else. Whenever Sam closed his eyes and tried to picture Dan, what came to mind was the image of him in a dapper suit, driving the Beamer, and flashing a magazine smile. “What happened?”
“He and a co-worker had a … difference of opinion. One thing led to another and the situation spiraled out of control. Your Dad didn’t mean to hit him Sam, no matter what you might hear from Kevin Lowry or anyone else. He’s been wound tight since you left for camp. He missed you terribly.”
Sam thought he might burst like a dam. “Do you mean …. it was my fault?”
She corrected herself quickly. “Oh no, Sam. Not at all and I mean that. You had nothing do to with this whatsoever.”
“Really?” he sniffed. He wanted to believe her.
“Really, Sam. It’s just that your father loves you so much. When you’re away at camp, it’s hard on him.”
“Does Dad still have a job? Are we poor now?” Sam couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d caused his dad’s problems. If he hadn’t insisted on going to camp …
Faith laughed off his worries, as if they were impossible. “No, Sam. We’re not poor. We’re just fine. Your Dad still works for the company. They know how valuable he is and so they just moved him to a new spot. Now he doesn’t have to manage people. He can focus on selling, which is what he’s really good at.”
She pulled into the driveway. Sam could hear Anna’s nasal laugh from the Parker’s backyard. She sounded like a beached seal. Still chubby, Anna’s allergies hadn’t gotten any better. “I guess that’s good. How long ago did it happen?”
“You’d been gone only two weeks. It happened … the same day Tiger met with his accident. We’d have written you about it, but I wanted you to have a fabulous summer.”
Sam’s dad awoke with a start. “Are we home?”
“Yes, Dan. Go fire up the grill, please.”
Later on, what Sam remembered most about that night was the beer. His dad drank three of them.