Nerd Camp 2.0
The main difference between Zack and his stepbrother Gabe could be summed up by baseball cards: Zack collected baseball cards to trade with his friends, while Gabe slid baseball cards under the strap of his night brace to prevent the headgear from itching his skull.
When Zack first saw that Gabe had brought baseball cards with him for his weekend in New York City, he was surprised and impressed. The stepbrothers finally had something in common. “You collect?” Zack asked. “Want to trade?”
“That’d be good,” said Gabe. “Mine are starting to get permanent indents, and that defeats the purpose.”
“What do you mean?” Zack asked.
Gabe took his night brace out of his duffel bag and wrapped it around his head, hooking it to pieces of metal on either side of his mouth. He then slid five baseball cards underneath the strap, from one ear to the other. “See?” he said. “I need to wear this whenever I’m at home, and all night. The fabric itches, though, so I put the cards underneath. An added bonus is that the cards keep my hair from getting too creased.”
“Dude,” said Zack. “With that thing on, I don’t think anybody’s looking at your hair.”
“Ha ha,” said Gabe, removing the cards but not the headgear. “What do you do with your baseball cards, then?”
“I collect them,” Zack said. “See?” He took out a small binder that was filled with pages of plastic sleeves. In each sleeve was a baseball card and not one was creased or dented in any way. “My best ones are up front here, and they get worse as you go back. But sometimes I mix it up. I put some good ones towards the back so people won’t know if I’m trying to give them my worst cards.”
“What makes a card good or bad?” Gabe asked.
“Lots of things, like how good the player is, if the card is rare. Some rare ones can be worth a ton of money, especially if they’re old.”
Gabe squinted through his bifocals and turned a couple pages of the binder. “These look pretty new.”
“Yeah, nobody can really afford old ones, since they’re so expensive. Except for Leighton Ayres, who won’t even trade with anyone because none of our cards are good enough for him.” Zack rolled his eyes. “But my friend Nick found all these boxes of old cards in his basement, and his dad sold them for hundreds of bucks. That’s what got everyone at school into collecting. And all those old cards were once new.”
“Everything old was once new,” Gabe said with wonder. “I’m taking a research methods class at camp this summer, and the first step of the scientific method is to make observations. That’s a really good observation. Think about it. Really old books were once new books in stores. My mom’s old camera that takes pictures on actual film, that was new once, and people probably thought it was really cool and the best way to take pictures. And artifacts! Think about those old pots at the ancient history museum. They were once new pots that people used for cooking.”
Zack didn’t understand why Gabe always had to think about things so deeply. All he meant was that if he collected baseball cards now, eventually his new cards would be old cards that were worth money. But Gabe had to go off and talk about nerdy things like books and film cameras and pots at the ancient history museum.
When his mom first married Gabe’s dad, Zack found it weird when Gabe did stuff like that, which was most of the time. It was bad enough that Zack had to move all the way across the country, leaving his friends and his dad in California to live in New York City. Their apartment was even smaller than it had been in LA, it took an hour and two trains to get to the beach, and his new school had kids who’d been in class together since kindergarten. If he had to get a stepbrother and make his family even more complicated, that stepbrother could at least be a built-in friend.
Looking back it seemed stupid, but Zack had given a lot of thought to impressing his new stepbrother. He’d perfected his skateboard moves, set new high scores on his video games, and combed through his iPod, imagining himself going through Gabe’s and finding all the same songs. Then he met Gabe. Gabe, who couldn’t balance on a skateboard, who preferred books to video games, and who hadn’t heard of a single band Zack liked. Nothing would have made the move easy, but was it too much to ask that Gabe be a little like him?
Now that they’d been stepbrothers for almost a whole year, Zack still thought Gabe liked nerdy things, but he was more used to it. That was just Gabe. He was on a math team (which Zack still didn’t get, since math wasn’t a sport) and went to a special summer camp that was like school, only with even more learning. But he was also fun and funny, and his nerdiness could be useful, like if you needed help with your homework or if you ran into a snake in the woods and needed to know if it was poisonous or not, which had really happened last summer. People made fun of nerds at school, but Zack liked hanging out with Gabe despite the geeky things he said and did. There was even something admirable about the way Gabe didn’t try to hide that he was a nerd; not that he could hide it if he tried. Here he was doing something normal like looking at baseball cards, yet he was wearing headgear and talking about artifacts.
“Dude,” said Zack. “Take off that night brace.”
“Oh! I didn’t even realize I was still wearing it. Good observation!” said Gabe. The metal on his teeth reflected into Zack’s eyes as he unhooked the headgear from his braces and placed it on Zack’s TV, which served as Gabe’s nightstand when he visited. “It’s actually not that uncomfortable, apart from the itchy strap. Last week, my mom let me ride my bike up to the Italian ices place at night to meet Eric and Ashley, and I did the same thing. I passed these kids from school on the way and they laughed at me, but I didn’t realize why until I got there and Ashley told me I was wearing it. It was pretty embarrassing.”
“Did you have the baseball cards around the back, too?” Zack asked.
“Yeah,” Gabe said, shaking head. Then he brightened. “At least my hair wasn’t creased!”
Zack shook his head in disbelief. If that happened to him, he’d beg his mom to let him move back to California. He made a silent promise to himself that when he got braces—which his mom said was going to happen in the fall, despite all of his protesting—he’d put up with the braces and that’s it. If the orthodontist tried to make him wear headgear or put on rubber bands or crank his teeth with a metal key every day, he’d flat out refuse. If that didn’t work, he’d keeping “losing” his orthodontic equipment until his mom and the doctor got the picture.
Gabe sat down on the edge of Zack’s bed. “What’s the status of Mission: Campossible?” he asked.
“It’s good!” said Zack. He was so pleased with Gabe’s help in trying to get him permission to go to sleep away camp that summer, he didn’t even mind that Gabe had given their plan such a cheesy name. Without Gabe’s help, all Zack would have done was beg and tell his mom that everyone else was allowed to go to camp, and he didn’t think that would have swayed her to let him go. No begging would have changed the fact that he was still only eleven, and for some reason his mom had it in her head that he couldn’t go until he was twelve. Gabe, however, was full of ideas, and he knew how to do fancy research that impressed adults. “I think all the stuff we’ve been doing is working,” Zack said.
“Tell me!” Gabe said.
“Well,” Zack said, “she really liked that list you helped me make, about how camp makes you a maturer person.”
“The Camp-Builds-Character Proof,” Gabe said proudly.
“Right,” said Zack. “And last night I told her about all the camps we found that are right near yours, and I said how that’d make it easy to drop us off and pick us up together.”
“Did the map help?” Gabe asked. He’d plotted the locations of five camps near his own on a map to show just how close they were.
“Yeah, the map totally helped,” Zack said. “Thanks, man.”
“No biggie,” said Gabe. “I’ve been working on one more thing, and I think it’ll be the clincher.” He made a drumroll noise on his duffel bag, then removed and unfolded a poster-sized chart filled with numbers.
“Whoa,” said Zack. “What’s that?”
“Remember I asked you about all the stuff you’d do this summer if you didn’t go to camp? Well, I added up the estimated cost of all of those things, and then I compared the total to the average cost of going to sleepaway camp. I think the numbers speak for themselves.”
Zack sat on the bed next to Gabe. He never knew why people said numbers spoke for themselves; he usually needed a teacher to speak for them, and even then he had a hard time listening, since there was so much other, more interesting stuff he could be thinking about, like what time it was in California, or how to perfect his boardslide at the skate park, or what color the hardened gum on the bottom of his desk might be. So he couldn’t completely understand how Gabe’s chart worked, but he saw lists of things that, he had to admit, would make an awesome summer: extra guitar lessons, a new skateboard, going to the beach and renting a surfboard every weekend, buying new video games, flying to LA to visit his dad. “This shows how much all this stuff would cost?” he asked.
“Yep,” said Gabe. “I didn’t know you collected baseball cards. I should add that to the list. But even without it, all the stuff you’d do at home adds up to a lot more than six weeks at sleepaway camp. I think your mom and my dad will see that the cost-effective approach is to let you go to camp.”
“You mean it’s cheaper to send me to camp than make me stay home?”
Gabe nodded. “Good observation.”
Zack pulled the chart closer to him and punched Gabe in the arm. “Dude!” he said. “My mom is going to flip. Here’s an observation: You’re the best!”
“Thank you.” Gabe said, beaming. He rubbed his arm. “And ouch.”