Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Chapter 1

(New to Snapshots? Start here)

Chapter 1

“I can’t find my bag.”

The airline representative behind the counter sighed broadly, licking her index finger and planting it on a form that she plucked from a large stack near her computer. “Fill in the top two fields,” she instructed in monotone, wielding an oversized fingernail over some highlighted text.

No, no,” Alex said, “it’s sort of an emergency.” She glanced at the carousal of spinning luggage behind her, seeing nothing but the lone red suitcase that had been travelling the circuit for the past ten minutes.

Another long sigh from behind the counter. “Isn’t it always,” the agent said wryly, in a tone that did not indicate compassion. “Listen, just fill out the form and we’ll call you when we have your bag.”

Alex swallowed hard. If only it were that easy. A sudden realization made her face burn and her stomach churn. The identification tag on her duffel bag gave her dad’s address and phone number. What if the airline called his house? After all, it was a local number. They’d probably assume she had returned from wherever she had been and that delivering the luggage to her home would be a great service.

She couldn’t let that happen. “Do you contact the address on the ID tag?” Alex asked innocently. The agent raised her eyebrows and narrowed her eyes. Alex wasn’t sure how to interpret the look, so she plowed ahead. “See, I’m going to be at camp. Not my house. My home address is on the tags, and-”

The airline employee wordlessly tapped her fingernail over a phrase that read “….every effort is made to ensure that your baggage is returned to you on site.”

“Yes, but—”

“Indicate the address where you wish to be contacted on the top two lines.” She gave the form several firm thumps with her fingertip.

“Yes, but what if the luggage doesn’t turn up here—where the form is…” her voice trailed helplessly.

“That’s why you label it, dear. As long as it has an ID tag, you’ll get it back.”

Alex’s hands shook as she filled out the forms. She was thankful that the airline agent was too busy rapidly clicking her fingernails across her keyboard to notice. Alex was leaving a trail, just like criminals did in the movies—the bad ones that got caught, anyway.

When she was finished, Alex slid the papers across the counter. The agent plucked a couple brochures from a rack, grabbed a small clear bag from beneath the counter and handed it all to Alex. “I’ve put a trace into the system,” she said, nodding toward her computer. “Good luck.” She gave an authoritative nod that effectively ended the conversation. “Next.” She barked, craning her head meaningfully around Alex, as she beckoned the good-looking young man who was next in line.

Alex turned slowly from the counter, scanning the brochures with grim titles such as When Your Luggage Doesn’t Make It and Stood Up at the Baggage Carousal: What to do When All Else Fails. She glanced through the clear plastic bag at the oh-so-helpful assortment of emergency supplies: a small tube of toothpaste, a travel toothbrush, even a thin pair of socks. The only thing that seemed immediately useful was the small foil packet containing a single dose of headache medicine. About two feet into her retreat she suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. The cute guy at the counter had definitely said her name.

Alex paused and fiddled with the bag, straining to hear without looking conspicuous. The guy said something that sounded suspiciously like her flight number, and she definitely heard the word “page.” She decided not to stick around to find out more. Alex made a beeline for the exit.

Paranoia set in quickly. Alex had certainly underestimated the efficiency of the airline. An agile bunch of dedicated workers, they must have not only found her bag, but phoned in the good news to her father’s house. Busy with clients all day, Alex’s step mom, Angela, never picked up the phone. Undoubtedly, though, she would have been the first to hear the message. Alex wasn’t sure about how Angela would have notified her father at court—didn’t they keep the jury sequestered? If he could be reached at the courthouse, however, he’d have a wide assortment of law enforcement options at his immediate disposal. It was hard to tell how the cute guy might fit into the scenario, unless social services had been dispatched already.

Alex had always considered herself to be an honest person. Although some—and Alex feared that this equation included all parental units—would argue that her current actions not only flew in the face of straight up honest dealing, they teetered on the brink of downright delinquency.

Turning Lester’s escapade into a once in a lifetime opportunity was the ultimate application of the lemons to lemonade philosophy that had served her so well in life. Put the proper spin on it, and any situation can become an advantage. Even her Sunday School teacher had said that adversities were a gift from God to help people grow. Although Alex was pretty sure that covert summer employment was not what Mrs. Evans had in mind when she made those remarks, it didn’t diminish their application in Alex’s mind.

After all, this situation wasn’t appreciably different from the time when she’d skipped three September school days to sell French fries at the traveling carnival that set up camp three blocks from her house. She had trudged home each day in rough synchronization with the final bell, smelling thickly of grease that she hoped her mother would associate with the school cafeteria.

Her mother had needed the cash. Indirectly, at least. She’d just been laid off from her job at the billing department of a large auto dealer, and Alex felt guilty for needing soccer cleats and school supplies. With careful rationing, Alex didn’t have to ask her mom for a dime for the next three months, which was a far better time because by then she had been rehired—in a promoted position, no less. It had all been for the good cause of stress reduction and happy home relations.

It was the same thing now, another good cause. After all, if Alex was ever going to have a normal teenage summer complete late night cabin pranks and one of those seasonal romances she always read about, it would seem like now was the time. And, these were disadvantaged kids she’d be working with. And again, the anti-stress factor couldn’t be overlooked. With Alex’s summer plans, everyone benefited. Alex’s parents could enjoy summer without cumbersome rescheduling and taxing phone conversations, the disadvantaged kids had enough staff for their camp, and, as an added bonus, Alex could have the kind of summer she’d always dreamed of having.

It had been the perfect solution to the ultimate joint-custody mishap. Even Alex’s father could now endure jury duty with pure peace of mind after reading his daughter’s letter about the exciting new job she had taken. Alex’s letter to her father had, in fact, been technically accurate. She’d taken great pains to describe her new summer job in a way that would leave Dan McNeely with a sense of confidence.

Yes, his daughter would be all right this summer. No, they couldn’t reschedule the trip, as she’d taken a responsible position at a nearby camp. The only thing left open for interpretation was what, exactly, the camp was nearby. Alex knew her father would feel no need to investigate that detail. She’d been under her mother’s roof at the time, and, though Alex was quite sure he’d naturally assume the camp was nearby as in Virginia, not nearby as in New York, Alex had not actually lied.

It had been a plan of flawless design. Beautifully executed, and with the aid of the cell phone her parents split the cost of for their individual Alex-tracking purposes, completely possible to sustain indefinitely. Although Alex had always known that there was a possibility the entire plan could backfire, she never imagined that it would happen before she even left the airport.

She was determined to at least get to camp. She had no idea what was up, but she needed some time to think, to sort through her options. Although it appeared that she’d have to face up to the whole mess a lot sooner than anticipated, she wasn’t prepared for it to happen in the next ten minutes.

These were the thoughts that hammered through Alex’s brain as she exited the airport, stepped onto the curb and attempted to hail a cab. Three passed her by and the driver of a fourth was parked and asleep at the wheel. She finally got the attention of a fifth cab by stepping off the curb mere inches from the passenger door and waving her arms in a wide arc. The driver stopped, and she slid into the backseat of the cab. “Thanks,’ she said, breathlessly, hoping she didn’t sound nervous. “I need a ride to Camp Edson.”

The driver cocked his head to the side as he turned around to give her a questioning glance that made her suddenly uncomfortable.

“Come again?” the driver asked, cupping a hand around his ear.

“Camp Edson,” Alex enunciated carefully, hoping she didn’t sound sarcastic.

“A street address would help us along, here, ” the cab driver prompted.

Alex dug through her carry on until she found the crumpled sheets she’d printed from the camp’s web site. “Thirteen-twenty Edson Road,” Alex began.

“Edson Road? Let me see that,” the driver reached a bony hand toward the sheet in Alex’s hand. “May I?”

Alex handed off the paper, her nervousness mounting by the second. Rapid-fire “What if” thoughts hammered through her mind. What if she misread the maps? What if Camp Edson was in a different Faulkner, NY? One nowhere near the Albany airport. What if-”

The driver chuckled in a way Alex didn’t like at all. “Well,” he began, “I can get you there, but,” he tapped the meter on the front of his dashboard, “you might not like the results.”

What do you mean?”

“Look,” he said, tracing the lines on the not-really-to-scale map under the dog-eared corner of the paper that shook in his hand. “This is forty, fifty miles from here. The trip would cost at least seventy-five, eighty dollars. I’m not interested in wiping out your ice cream money. Why don’t you do yourself a favor and go inside and make a call to this camp. See if they can’t send someone out for you.”

The driver’s voice had taken on a sympathetic, if not downright grandfatherly tone. Alex fidgeted in a moment of uncertainty. On one hand, going back into the airport seemed to be clearly out of the question. On the other hand, she had counted her money the night before, and already knew that she only had $76.37. Maybe just enough to get her there—or maybe not. Her brain started to crank out the “what if” questions once again: what if I just ask him to let me out once the meter hits $75.00? What if I’m still five miles from camp? What if the driver gets suspicious and calls the police? What if I need more money before I get my first paycheck?

“Listen,” the cab driver said as he handed Alex her paper. “Go in, make a few calls, if nothing works out, flag me down on my next pass through the airport.”

Alex stood on the curb, stunned. Her summer was going to end here, then, in the airport, before it even began. Before she’d be able to answer the questions that her actions demanded, the reasons and the why’s to which the only answer she could offer was that she’d love to be able to explain herself. It hardly seemed feasible that explaining herself could be both the question and the answer at the same time.

The glass doors behind Alex slid open as passengers exited the airport. Riding on the sound waves trailing in their wake, Alex heard the one word she dreaded most. He name. A cold sweat broke over her entire body as she realized the awful truth. She was busted.

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