Authors: Sarah Combs
THE BUTTERFLIES started showing up the night before I left for Geek Camp. The first one came as a surprise: an otherworldly blue messenger, lifting and settling its wings on the windshield of the wheezy Chrysler LeBaron I had inherited from my grandmother just months before. Carol was riding shotgun, and when I whacked her knee and pointed, she just slid her sunglasses down her nose, peered at the butterfly like it might be contagious, and said, “They’re everywhere, Glo. A plague of them.” After that, just like when you learn a new word and suddenly it’s all over the place, I started seeing the blue butterflies everywhere I looked.
But then, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t looked for signs. It was not unusual for me, at age twelve, to tiptoe outside to our moonlit mailbox and fully expect to find within it (at midnight, on a random Tuesday!) a love note composed in Egyptian hieroglyphics or a grocery list scrawled in the shaky hand of the ghost of Boo Radley. Give me a fortune cookie, a Magic 8 Ball, a plague of blue butterflies, and I’ll be sure to find in them some urgent message from the universe. Ask Carol: According to her, I’m a master of the Art of Arcane Communication but a complete idiot when it comes to the Writing on the Wall. What happened at Geek Camp? It was like that. I never saw it coming, not even for half a second.
That first magic blue butterfly stayed on the windshield of the Munch all the way to Dairy Queen. Carol’s the one who came up with that: the Munch, as in LeBaron von Münchhausen. Carol’s dad is a psychologist, so she’s always talking about stuff like Münchausen syndrome. Carol has diagnosed half our class, and Münchausen syndrome is apparently what Sophie Allen has, because she’s always feigning illness to get out of gym class. Carol says I’m pretty normal, but that I’m prone to hyperbole and should work on impulse control. Impulse control? Seriously? We’d been in the car for ten minutes and Carol had already texted her boyfriend, Oscar (pronounced “OH-scar” because he is, in Carol’s words — and inarguably — a Cuban Demigod) at least four thousand times.
That’s half the reason I couldn’t wait to go to Geek Camp: I was under obligation to check my technoparaphernalia at the door. According to the glossy brochure, the idea behind Geek Camp is to provide Kentucky’s “best and brightest” rising high-school seniors with an early taste of collegiate life. So you have to pick a major and everything. I flirted with the idea of Forensic Science (too gross) and briefly considered Theater Arts (too obvious), but in the end I listed as my first choice the cryptically named Secrets of the Written Word. The teacher — some guy who called himself Dr. Weston A. Xavier — didn’t even provide a blurb for his class in the glossy brochure. Just a title and a name, check the box here. The mysterious blurb-lessness is what eventually won me over; I checked the box, sent off my application, and hoped for something wonderful. Dr. Weston A. Xavier didn’t disappoint: Several weeks later I received a beautifully handwritten letter, sealed with actual wax:
I look forward to meeting each of you in June. Before we begin, I must ask that each of you please leave behind any personal computers, cellular telephones, or any other means by which you might find yourselves plugged in and tuned out. It’s a challenge, and I’m asking you to rise to it. We’ll operate on the honor system and I trust it will work. By signing below, you enter into contract to abstain from your gadgets for the duration of our four weeks together. Bring a notebook and a writing implement and you’ll have all the tools you need.
“That is a freaking conspiracy right there,” Carol had said when I showed her the letter. “X? He calls himself X?”
“Not even Doctor X. Just X.”
“What a jackass,” Carol murmured, fingers skating elegantly across her phone.
“There’s nothing anywhere online about a Weston A. Xavier,” I informed her. “It’s a pseudonym, Carol, hello.” I had to admit it: I was intrigued.
“Oh, well, excuse me,” Carol said. “Mr. Pseudonymous X, of course. Mr. Pretentious Monogram. Sounds like some secret psychological experiment where somebody — some guy who’s probably a
Glo — is trying to see if you all can function without the Vortex.” The Vortex: that’s Carolspeak for: TumblTwitFaceGram, which is basically where she lives, if you don’t count brief forays to school, the ballet studio, and Dairy Queen.
“Who says the guy’s a perv? He’s probably just a lonely J. Alfred Prufrock type who wishes he were teaching at Yale instead of some bush-league high-school academic camp.”
“I’m just saying,” Carol said, dangling the letter in my face. “Maybe this is your golden ticket and — oh, wait, oh, my God — if you can keep clear of your phone for a month, you’ll win a chocolate factory in the end!”
I rolled my eyes. Conspiracy or not, I was looking forward to a break from the constant racket of modern technology. First of all, on the Vortex I’m more of a silent lurker than an active participant. Don’t even get me started on the whole Pandora’s box element — it poses a constant threat to my emotional well-being. Second, I have a bad habit of losing or breaking small, expensive items (my retainer, my contacts), so when I finally caved under my paranoid father’s insistence that I go cellular in the name of Unforeseen Emergencies, I was forced to accept what is the mobile phone equivalent of a Jurassic-era dinosaur. The Unforeseen Emergencies? So far they haven’t happened. So far the dinosaur has proven to be not a life preserver but a glorified umbilical cord connecting me to more sound and fury than I know what to do with. Third: It is physically impossible for me not to compose text messages in complete sentences in words that contain all their natural-born letters. By the time I have pecked out a response to, say, an urgent text from Carol (“omg did u hear?????????”) in my own laborious, long-winded, correctly capitalized, and carefully punctuated way (“No. Did I miss something? Tell me!”), Carol will have already sent like three more urgent messages in the interim. I can handle Latin, I can
amo amas amat
all day long, but I suck at text-ese and I’m constantly behind.
Anyway. I still had a few precious hours to go before surrendering to X and the Luddite life for four weeks. Carol and I ate our Blizzards in the Munch. The convertible top was rolled down, and the sunlight slanting through the trees was getting soft and syrupy in that way that makes you miss things that aren’t even gone yet. This was our goodbye trip to DQ, because Carol was about to leave for her own summer adventure, a crazy-elite ballet school in New York City.
“You know,” Carol said in her thoughtful voice, “in New York you can get a hoagie or a Rolex or whatever on the street at like four in the morning, but I don’t think they have a DQ.”
“Seriously. No Blizzards.”
“Yikes. I might have to change my mind.”
Carol shoved her sunglasses on top of her head, shot me a look. “Girl. You’re not changing your mind. If you
let yourself get roped into that scholarship, I just — I just don’t even know what. I might die.”
“You’re not going to die, and I’m not going to take the scholarship.”
Carol narrowed her eyes, searching my expression for signs of half-assedness. “Do you promise?”
“Good. Because dude, the Plan abides. The Plan trumps the Scholarship. I will tattoo it on your face if I have to.”
The Scholarship, the Scholarship. It’s all anybody wanted to talk about, and I was so sick of talking about it I could’ve screamed. It’s like this: If you get accepted to state government-funded Geek Camp, you also score an automatic free ride to the University of Kentucky, aka UK, aka the state’s “flagship university.” The idea, presumably, is that Kentucky needs to hang on to its geeks, the better to shake that whole shoeless, clueless, Kentucky-fried stigma. Which, you know what? Don’t even talk to me about. I don’t have a whole lot of patience with that bulsh.
. The word conjures pirates, skulls and crossbones, damsels in distress being forced to walk the plank. A romantic word that has nothing to do with the singular
-romance of going to college within a sixty-mile radius of the place where you grew up. The Plan? Now, the Plan was romantic: Carol and I were going to move to New York as soon as we graduated. She would be a dancer and I would be an actress and we would be broke, but our lives would be awesome and filled with mystery and intrigue. The details of the Plan were still fuzzy, but we knew it would involve a shared apartment strung with tiny white lights.