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“Alex McNeely, please report to the ticket counter.” The voice was crisp and professional, but sounded impersonal and cold to Alex as she reluctantly headed back inside.
She felt hot, sweaty, and sick to her stomach as she forced her rubbery knees to keep pushing forward. It was a bad idea, she thought, a really bad idea. I won’t do it again. Not that she would be likely to get the chance. Would she get sent to a detention center? A foster home? Did it matter that she was suddenly very, very sorry?
Alex stopped at a row of vinyl chairs about twenty yards from the counter. She needed a moment to pull herself together before she faced whatever was about to follow. She took a deep breath, pressing her sweaty palms together in an attempt to stop her hands from shaking. Mere seconds passed before the inevitable. “There she is,” Alex caught her breath as she recognized the voice of the airline representative she had spoken with earlier.
Two things surprised Alex as the cute guy turned from the counter and headed toward her. First, was the look of relief that washed over his face. The second was that he couldn’t be much older than Alex herself.
“Alex?” The guy asked hopefully, raking his fingers through his wavy brown hair.
Alex nodded dumbly.
“I’m Jason Strafford. I’m really glad I caught up with you. Do you have any luggage?” He raised his eyebrows, extending two hands in a palms up gesture, in apparent indication that he’d love to be helpful if Alex would merely show him how.
“Did my father send you?” Alex asked weakly.
“No,” Jason looked puzzled. ”At least not directly. I guess he could have arranged something through the office…” his voice trailed as he faltered, evidently frustrated by his inability to be more helpful. “But I’m here nonetheless.” His tone of voice shifted to an upbeat note. “Can I take that bag for you while we find the rest?” he nodded at the overstuffed carry on weighing down the entire left side of Alex’s slight frame.
Are you with social services?”
Jason looked surprised. “Me? No way, I’m just a lowly photographer. We won’t see anyone from social services until later in the week.”
Alex’s head was spinning, and for one sickening moment, her vision began to black out and her ears began to ring and she knew she was seconds away from passing out.
What office? Why a photographer? What lay ahead at the end of the week? And, more importantly, why was this young, gorgeous guy who could have easily stepped from any one of the magazine covers at the airport newsstand so happy about all of this?
“Are you all right?” Jason asked with concern.
Alex choked back the tears that were threatening to make this already disastrous situation even worse as she back into one the vinyl chairs and pulled a tissue from the small cellophane package she spotted in her emergency pack.
“I’ve been better,” Alex said carefully. “I can’t give you my luggage because it’s lost. I already filled out all this paperwork, that’s all I can do. So I’ll have to go without it.” A tear trickled down her cheek and she stopped to blow her nose and compose herself.
“Hey, now, it can’t be all that bad,” Jason said, taking a seat beside her. “I’m going to call my mom. She loves to shop. She’ll help you get everything you need before we head off to camp. You’ll forget about all of this as soon as you get there.”
Camp? Was it really possible that Jason, the photographer dispatched by the mysterious office was her ride to camp? She had some serious backtracking to do.
“How did you find me?” she asked, hoping the high pitched confusion in her voice didn’t betray the fact that this was the first moment in the past half hour that she didn’t think she was headed for certain doom.
Jason grinned. “I’m getting the idea that you weren’t expecting anyone to pick you up. Let’s start over.” Jason extended his hand. “Hi, I’m Jason from Camp Edson. Meg, the camp director, sent me here to meet you and give you a ride to camp.”
Alex smiled and shook his hand. “Thanks, but how did you know when to come for me?”
“This is the only flight coming in from Virginia until the red eye. Figured it was a good bet you’d be here…if not, I’d just come back in another,” he paused and glanced at his watch “thirteen hours or so.” He pulled a cell phone from a cargo pocket on the side of his khakis and punched out a series of numbers with his thumb.
“Hey, Mom, how’s the research going? You up for a break?”
Alex didn’t like the sound of interrupting someone’s research, but from Jason’s end, the conversation sounded smooth and easygoing. He grinned into the phone, responded with a small laugh at something that his mother had said, and answered with a comment Alex guessed to be appropriately witty in context. “Thanks, mom,” he finally said, in a charmingly sincere tone Alex found unlikely outside a Boy Scout meeting. Snapping the phone shut, he turned to Alex and said, “We’ve got about a half hour to kill. Want to sit somewhere with a soda?”
Camp life, Jason explained, was very full. “Relax while you can,” he said, handing her a large paper cup and a straw from the plastic tray he carried from the service counter of the airport’s snack bar. “Once we get to camp, you won’t remember what it’s like to kick back with a cold root beer.”
Staff training would begin that very afternoon: first aid basics, water safety, awareness talks from social services. There were cabins to clean, trails to clear, and handbooks to memorize. Then the campers would come, along with the need to put all that training into constant use. It sounded pretty intimidating, but Alex reminded herself that, after all, she did sign up for a challenge.
“I just wish I knew what my job was,” Alex said. She’d been hired to fill the vaguely outlined position of “support staff”, the ramifications of which she hadn’t previously taken the time to consider, but, now were advancing into the forefront of her thoughts as Jason threw in tidbits about unruly campers and the usual shortage of kitchen help.
“You were one of two or three people Meg hired over the phone. She just wanted to meet you guys before she assigned you to specific jobs—there’s a few possibilities, I’m sure she’ll find one that’s a good match.”
“What, exactly, will you do?” Alex asked.
“Talk about a perfect match, this is my dream job.” Jason practically oozed with enthusiasm. “It’s a new feature on the camp website. We’re posting pictures of the campers as they go through their day. That way, families can see what’s going on with the kids. Plus, it helps the camp. They’ve been applying for some grant money. This gives potential donors a way to really see the camp in operation. I’m expected to post twenty new pictures twice a day.”
“So basically, you’re working with cameras and computers all day?”
“Pretty much, but it gets better. I’m hoping to get into a photojournalism program next year, and I’m applying for a scholarship. This gives me a great opportunity to put my portfolio together. I’ll take pictures all week, and spend the weekends in the darkroom working on my scholarship package.”
“Where’s the darkroom?”
“You have your own darkroom?”
“Pretty cool, huh?” Jason flashed his cover boy dimples. “Photography has been my thing since middle school. Mom and Dad transformed storage area into a darkroom for me as an eighth grade graduation gift.”
The only thing Alex managed to recall about departing the eighth grade was a lengthy visit to the guidance office concerning the possibility of remedial summer course work to boost her GPA. The session did not culminate in significant overhaul of any area of the house, although she did receive a free tote bag at the bookstore where her mother purchased refresher workbooks for her annual flight north.
It was becoming clear that Jason was from one those impossibly perfect families that Alex occasionally observed from a distance but had little firsthand knowledge of, likely due to the fact that neither of her own families had anything in common with perfection.
Alex pictured well-dressed people with smiling faces gathering around a dinner table covered with steaming, homemade entrees. Jason and his siblings would brag about all the A’s they racked up at school that day, while the parents related amusing tidbits from day’s work at stable, lucrative professions.
“What is your mom researching?” Alex asked, as if to prove her point.
“Art therapy and the at-risk child,” Jason said. “She’s a university professor. She’s up for tenure, but in her field it’s publish or perish. She’s been working on this study for nearly 18 months. If it’s successful—i.e., if it gets printed in a professional journal—she’ll get tenure.”
“What’s that?” Alex asked, feeling dumb.
“Permanent job security.”
Of course,” Alex said, more to herself than Jason.
As the level of Alex’s soda inched closer to the ice congregated at the bottom of her red plastic tumbler, her nervousness about the professor’s imminent arrival rose in inverse proportion. Alex couldn’t recall ever meeting a real-life professor, but stereotypes and movies served her well in forming a mental image of what to expect. A suit, definitely. Possibly polyester, but more likely tweedy grey. What with all the research, there was bound to be some sort of black leather bag or briefcase in one well manicured hand and the keys to a late model sedan in the other. Alex hated situations that made her feel awkward, at the mercy of others, and generally out of control. The current one was shaping up to be all three.
Alex scanned the horizon of the airport terminal and, seeing no immediate prospects, relaxed enough to sip down the last of her soda. She tensed again as a wave of recognition crossed Jason’s face, but called off the mental alert as a blonde woman in paint splattered blue jeans approached the table. Someone from the camp? A chance meeting with an old teacher? Alex wasn’t sure, but the woman’s warm smile put her instantly at ease. All thoughts of the impending shopping trip with the professor were temporarily pushed from her mind. At least until Jason motioned in her direction and said , “Alex, I’d like you to meet Joanna. My mom.”
As surprising as Alex found the professor’s well worn jeans, flip flops, and long wavy hair, it was her easy manner that really caught her off guard as she timidly shook Dr. Strafford’s outstretched hand. “I’m sorry I’m such a mess,” she laughed, turning toward her son. “You caught me at the end of a session.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” Jason said.
“Oh, it was perfect timing,” the professor said. “We’d already survived three overturned mixing trays, a puddle of green paint, and two brushes down the drain. It’s safe to say we were done for the day.” She turned to Alex. “My research is a lot of fun, but a special needs art class is always an adventure. But enough about me. Jason says you need a few things to get by while the airline locates your luggage?”
Alex nodded dumbly, and continued feeling both mute and less-than-bright as she trailed behind Jason and his mother through the parking lot and toward their incredibly average minivan. Alex couldn’t think of a single thing to say, but Dr. Strafford—Joanna, as she insisted on being called—instantly put her at ease with stories about research sessions that sounded an awful lot like children’s art classes. Alex became absorbed in the stories of Joanna’s students: the autistic boy who couldn’t hold a paintbrush but formed a clay zoo full of animal sculptures, the little girl who never spoke but said volumes through collage cut outs –that she almost forgot to be concerned about her own situation until they pulled into the parking lot of a shopping center Alex remembered visiting once with Angela and the twins.
She knew it was unlikely that Angela would be out shopping in the early afternoon—her prime time for seeing clients at her home based office—and even if she did find a sudden need to purchase wholesome snacks for the twins, she would almost certainly be at a shopping center a closer to her neighborhood, a good half hour north by Alex’s estimation. Still, being in a place where she knew Angela had been, ever, put her on instant edge.
In the interest of speed and economy, Alex made a beeline for the clearance rack in the back of juniors section of the large department store. After rejecting four shirts upon consultation of the price tag, Alex’s eyes began to dart around in search of a deeper layer of savings on a more distant rack.
“What about this,” Joanna asked, holding up a cute green top and a pair of jean shorts. Alex hesitated, trying to think of a clever brush off that would neither offend Joanna nor lead to her having to part with a large portion of her wallet’s meager contents.
“Hey, I’ve got this old gift card,” Joanna said, rummaging through a knit orange bag that wasn’t remotely capable of transporting scholarly research. It’s probably about ready to expire. Let’s get you a couple good outfits just in case the airline doesn’t come through for a few days.”
“Oh. Wow. You don’t have to…” Alex stammered.
“Nonsense,” Joanna replied. Let’s get some clothes and get you guys off to camp!”
With that, Joanna took control of the cart and they breezed through the aisles, Alex keeping a grateful eye on the ever-growing pile of camp essentials mounting in the basket and alert gaze around each corner they turned. Her heart skipped a beat every time she saw a thick head of dark hair on a woman with an athletic build—which seemed way too often than Alex found reasonable to expect. By the time they reached the checkout line, she was on the verge of an anxiety induced asthma attack. And she didn’t even have asthma.
Alex wasn’t keeping up with her end of the conversation and she felt terrible, but really, what was she supposed to say? Sorry, guys, I’m a little distracted because I might run into my stepmother, who doesn’t know I’m in town?”
As if reading her mind, Joanna turned to Alex as they crossed the parking lot toward the minivan. “So, how did you end up with a summer job in New York, Alex?”
Alex was prepared for this question. However, the ever-tightening knot in her stomach served as a constant reminder of the possibility of becoming entangled in the maze of her own deceit. She took a deep breath. “I spend every summer in New York,” she answered truthfully. “My dad and his family live here, so I’m a summertime resident. But this year, my father had to go away on business, and my step mother had to go to Atlanta to take care of her mother who had surgery, so asked if I could work at camp. That way, I’ll have a place to live and work, and still see my family on a few weekends here and there,” she said, seamlessly sliding into the fiction around which she’d shaped her summer.
This was the first chance Alex had to try her prepared statement on a live audience and she tried hard not to study Joanna’s face for signs of doubt. Joanna started the van, said something about a “creative solution,” and steered both the vehicle and the conversation down a camp-bound path. Alex fixed her face forward, in a concentrated effort to avoid a show of relief.
As the van crunched across the gravel road that led straight into camp, her face broke into a huge smile that was part relief and part sheer excitement. She’d actually made it. She was here, at Camp Edson! Alex held her camera up to the window and took a shot, commemorating her first moment at camp. Turning her attention to the image captured on her screen, she felt her hands go to Jell-O. She fumbled her way across the controls in an attempt to zoom in on what she thought she saw. Even as the background consumed the camera screen, it took a few moments for reality to sink in. Although she couldn’t think of a reason why, the picture in front of her confirmed her worst fear. Angela was here, at camp.