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Alex scanned her mental database for any logical reason her stepmother would be at a camp for disadvantaged children and came up empty. She was supposed to be at home, 45 minutes away, selling herbs and natural remedies to mothers of colicky infants and finicky toddlers. She briefly considered the possibility that the twins had somehow been enrolled for a week of lakeside fun, but she was sure the literature had been clear on the fact that Camp Edson’s mission was to “provide a safe and nurturing environment for kids less fortunate.” Besides, even Jason had just been talking about social services training. No, Alex was certain Tim and Tom could not be campers.
Alex went into survival mode. Her first thought was to hide, but with Joanna and Jason pulling bags of freshly purchased supplies from the back of the van and discussing “check in” procedures, even she couldn’t think of a way to disappear without becoming even more conspicuous. She briefly considered some sort of disguise, but realized that was about as dumb as the time in third grade when she happened to get a haircut on the same day as her first pair of glasses and thought that her teacher would mistake her for a new kid. She’d lain awake the night before, giggling to herself about how fun it would be to pose as someone different for an entire day. She’d expected a new desk, an improved position at the lunch table, and the possibility of finding out what her classmates really thought of her when conversation turned to tales of “Alex, who is absent today.” Even now, her cheeks burned a little with embarrassment when she recalled her disappointment when the teacher scolded her for wandering around the bookcases when it was time to take a seat for morning roll call. Sheesh! How was she expected to know where to sit?—after all, she was the new kid!
Then it hit her. She wasn’t going to disappear physically or metaphorically. No, she was going to play this one straight. It was just like an episode from one of the old DVDs that Tim and Tom used to watch when they were younger, from a series featuring a little dog who played various roles in stories based on old literature. There was one in particular that the twins must have played every afternoon for an entire summer, something about a search for an important letter that had been stolen. Purloined, they called it. Yes, that was it! Only the little dog adaptation had been called the Pawlioned Letter, and revolved around the pooch’s difficulty in recovering the missing letter because it was hidden in the best place of all— plain view.
Yes, Alex would plow ahead with the plan. It was a good plan, after all, a plan rooted in the approval of classic literature, even. And it would work. It had to. After all, Angela really couldn’t be here looking for her. Could she?
“Thank you for helping me.” Alex heard a slight tremble in her voice as she stopped to say goodbye to Joanna. The professor gave her a quick hug in reply, which left her speechless.
Jason gave her sleeve a gentle tug. “We’re off to the lodge now, Mom. Thanks a million,” he said, giving his mother a quick squeeze. Alex hadn’t seen this much real-life hugging outside of the daycare center where she’d put in several afternoons of school-mandated community service. Jason grabbed Alex’s shopping bags and led her down the path toward the large L-shaped cabin that served as the hub of activity at Camp Edson.
Alex ducked under Jason’s outstretched arm as he ushered her through the rustic wooden door. Her utter amazement at Jason’s never ending display of good manners was the only thing that kept her mind off the fear gnawing inside her as they inched closer to the check in table just inside the door. Because if Angela was, indeed, here looking for her check in would be the place where she would find out.
Alex took a quick look around the spacious cabin and wiped her palms across her jeans and stepped up to the desk. “Alex McNeely, support staff,” she announced to the slender woman with long auburn hair.
“Great to meet you, Alex! I’m Meg.” Alex had exchanged many emails with Meg Wilson, the young, energetic woman who served as Camp Edson’s director along with her husband, Mark. Alex felt instantly at ease with Meg—largely because of Meg’s warm smile and welcoming tone, but partly, also, because Meg was one of the only people to whom she’d avoided lying. Unless, of course, you counted the digits Alex transposed in the phone numbers she’d supplied for each of her parental units.
To her relief, it appeared that Alex’s parents were probably the furthest thing from Meg’s mind as the camp director handed her a folder stuffed with all kinds of information: schedules for training sessions, a map of the grounds, camp rules and procedures, and a blank rectangular sticker on which she was instructed to write her name. Alex winced as she took the marker Meg offered and scrawled her name as illegibly as she dared. Hiding out in the open was one thing. Wearing a badge announcing that you’re doing it was something completely different.
Alex consulted a green sheet on the left hand side of her folder and discovered that she had about an hour to get settled in her cabin before she was to report to a Red Cross First Aid class. Alex was excited by the prospect of getting some Official Safety Credentials and wondered if she would get a certificate or card identifying her as a certified member of the emergency response community. Being a firefighter or an EMT was actually on the short list of her career aspirations and the upcoming session seemed as good a place as any to learn rescue and resuscitation basics.
Jason carried her shopping bags as far down the trail as he was permitted to go as a male staff member. Alex’s fingers brushed across Jason’s large, suntanned hand as she gathered the handles of the plastic bags. “Thank you,” she said, “for meeting me at the plane, the soda, introducing me to your mom, everything.”
Jason smiled, waving her complement aside with his now-free hand. ‘It was nothing, Alex.”
“But it was,” Alex insisted. “And I feel bad that my drama took up your whole afternoon.”
“Pshh…” Jason laughed. “It was no bother. But if you feel that bad, you’ve got the whole summer to make it up to me,” he smiled with his eyes and gave her a wink as he turned back down the path.
For the first time that day, Alex’s heart skipped a beat for a reason other than fear. “The whole summer,” she repeated to herself as she headed up the three weathered steps that led into the cabin to which she’d been assigned as a Counselor-in-Training.
The cabin was empty, so she tossed her bags on the bare mattress of a bottom bunk and began sorting through her few possessions. Mental images of Jason’s smile alternated with thoughts of when and how she’d encounter her stepmother as she organized her new toiletries in the plastic caddy Joanna had purchased for her. She wondered, suddenly, if either Jason or Joanna would even like her if they knew the real truth. Probably not, she decided, feeling a tug of remorse. She suppressed the feeling, as she headed back up the path to the lodge for the Red Cross training. She couldn’t change the past. She was here, now, regardless of the circumstances that brought her to Camp Edson. She wasn’t going to think any more about what she had done, or why, or whether or not she was a bad person. She would just concentrate on being a good person, here, now. In fact, that’s all she would think about. She wouldn’t even worry about Angela any more. Chances were, she’d been here on some sort of odd errand and was long gone. Or maybe her guilty mind had been playing trick on her, and Angela had never been here at all.
Alex determined that for the next hour, she was going to concentrate fully on first aid. She would even take notes. After all, there were campers coming and she had to be prepared for anything that might happen. That’s what good people did.
Alex saw Jason and a few other guys his age walking toward the main door of the lodge, and she picked up her pace in an effort to catch up. As Jason and the other counselors stepped onto the front porch, the instructor opened the door. “Welcome to first aid training,” she said, glancing at their name tags and greeting them by name.
“Hi, Brandon, grab a packet and have a seat,” she said in the general direction of a lanky blonde guy as she gestured toward pile of papers on folding chair inside the door. The Red Cross lady greeted Jason and someone named Bill and then began to turn in Alex’s direction, but Alex used the split second before their eyes locked to dart around the corner of the building. It seemed that at some point between Christmas and today, her stepmother had joined the Red Cross.