Exactly two things were clear to Alex McNeely at takeoff: for Lester O’Reiley it would be a summer of stiff charges for flying a late model Lexus through the window of a 7-11, and, in a lifetime first, she had no way to predict what she’d capture on the point and shoot digital camera tucked inside the pocket of her carry on bag.
It was early June, and Alex was flying into the unknown with nothing but an endpoint to frame her adventure. Her return ticket was tucked inside the duffel bag she’d checked during the lengthy security ritual she’d endured in the early morning hours and confirmed a 6 am flight the Thursday before Labor Day. Just like any other summer, Alex would return south in the final hours of August. Back to school, back to her room, back to routine. These facts were a given as the jet barreled down the runway.
What was unclear was what would happen between the moment that she got off the plane in Albany, New York in three hours and her scheduled return nearly three months in her future. That was also a fact, and it excited Alex more than anything that had ever happened in the sixteen years she’d been alive.
Leaving her mother and Courtney at the airport was familiar territory, as was the last minute packing she’d finished at midnight. Even the crayon-scrawled sign her half- sister taped to her bedroom door was identical to the one she made the year before: Closed for the season—Grand Reopening in September.
The reality of Alex’s adventure hadn’t hit her yet, because everything so far had seemed so normal. The tug she’d given Courtney’s braid as the little girl pushed her bags across the stained backseat of their aging mini van, the hasty pass through the drive up window of the all night donut shop: it was all so ordinary. Catching a flight on a northbound airliner the first Monday of summer break was unremarkable in every way.
Each September, Alex’s classmates returned to school with faces kissed by sun and surf, wallets bulging with the proceeds of summer jobs, and online albums of photos that told the stories of open roads and interesting places, old friends and new faces. Alex’s summers in New York may have begun at the airport, but they didn’t go much further than the living room of her father’s brick split level where she was surrounded by the preadolescent clutter of her twin half brothers and the ever present foliage of her herbalist step mother. Her own summer photos didn’t document much beyond the growth of the twins and the recession of her father’s hairline.
Alex’s summers were an edited version of rest of her life. They were bite-sized chapters in a story of a girl who shared a life with one family, a name with another, but a clear identity with neither. Of a second room, additional rules, and half siblings: division and multiplication at its worst, a mathematical madness that left Alex searching for a formula to account for it all.
Glancing at the newspaper clipping she clutched in her hand, Alex knew that the choices that would determine the course of her summer had already been made. There was no turning back. Lester O’Reilly’s crime demanded the ruling of a jury of average citizens, and Alex could bear witness to the fact that no citizen in the Keystone State was more average than Dan McNeely. Summoned to jury duty two weeks ago, Alex’s father had written her his apologies. He even sent a clipping—honest to goodness documentation of criminal activity that required his attention.
Alex knew that this wasn’t news of your average bump-in-the-road variety. Not after her parent’s semi-annual phone conference was in the past, an airline ticket purchased, and her mom’s calendar filled with a season of carefully planned, Alex-free arrangements. No, from the moment Alex plucked her father’s letter from the usual assortment of bills and junk, she knew this would be a four alarm, send in the lawyers custody squabble.
In a simple avoidance tactic, Alex sat on the information for a couple days. Just for fun, she began clicking her way though internet search engines wondering what she could do with a ticket to Albany, NY besides instigating another round of McNeely peace talks.
That’s when she discovered the prevention of her mother’s headaches, the antidote to her father’s guilt and her own escape from boredom all in a convenient, one-stop package. The website described Camp Edson as the “summer-long ride of your life” and Alex had to hand it to the camp’s advertising department: the phrase hooked her.
The online employment application included a lot of tough questions. Alex found that she spent a long time with it—two whole nights, in fact. The folks at Camp Edson wanted to know a lot more than the basic factual information demanded by any potential employer. They were obviously after some deeper analysis.
The questions ranged from determining how the applicant might deal with various fictional camp mishaps to what special skills and abilities the candidate might bring to the camp, and why the individual would be a good choice to work with disadvantaged campers.
Alex really didn’t have the answers to these questions, but she wasn’t one to let a small detail like a lack of content keep her from cranking out true masterpieces of creative fiction. She didn’t have a clue what she might do if she got lost on a trail with a group of campers, or how she’d potentially respond to an overturned canoe on choppy waters. She certainly wasn’t aware of possessing special skills likely to prove helpful in the camping environment, and what’s more, she wasn’t sure she could tell the difference between a disadvantaged camper and one who got all the breaks.
Alex didn’t have the answers, but she wanted them. She wanted them enough to allow her imagination to fill in the gaps between who she was and who she might be. The snapshot Alex really hoped to capture this summer wouldn’t be on film. It would be a glimpse past the smiling brown eyes, sassy hair, and freckled nose she saw in the mirror and into the murky haze of her own identity.
It was a snapshot Alex wanted so badly that she surprised herself by hitting the send key and emailing the application. She was even more surprised by the phone interview and job offer later that week, and relatively shocked that she actually accepted it.
Astonishing and sudden as it all was, the events of the past two weeks left a trail of unanswered questions. There were many to ponder, but at an altitude of 20,000 feet and long past the point of no return there was one question that concerned Alex more than most: would her parents find out?