by: Rayya Deeb ((Photograph for header image was taken by Mark Gamsey.))
The adventure begins, for Doro Campbell and for all of us…
MY BOTTOM LIP split straight down the middle from a combination of breathtaking G-force and peppery dry air. It stung like crazy. The skin on my cheeks pressed tight against the bone. I crinkled my nose at the motorized odor of BoomJet fumes, and blinked continuously to try and moisten my eyeballs.
I was a BoomJet virgin. I’d only flown on a regular jet once in my sixteen years, but one time was all it took to know this was far different. The low, monk-ish hum of the BoomJet wasn’t like an engine’s forceful whirr. It was hollow. Clean. Precise. Like the sound you hear when you press your ear to a conch shell, only amplified. There were no dings to say “buckle-up,” no overhead fans or lights. Just a slick, amber ceiling. Dark gray automated belts strapped us into black rubber seats. The only familiar thing from the other, old-fashioned flight I’d taken before was how all the passengers were trying to meditate away their concern.
Nothing assured me that I’d made the right choice, but here I was, being hauled off to what was probably some kind of reform school, so I had to go with it. It was my own fault for thinking I could transfer that money unnoticed. My arms, piled high in retro friendship bracelets– red, purple, gray, black and blue– were plastered against my rib cage. My hands grasped the seat, and even though my palms were hot and clammy, they weren’t going to slip. The force was too great. My ears popped. I swallowed, but that only made the throat scratchiness that was a normal part of my daily life in Southern California, worse. Hydration was impossible.
I sat, quiet, staring at a bulletproof mirror that separated us from the BoomJet cockpit, the faces of the other four passengers reflected in it. Just like me, each person moved only his or her eyes.
Mine shifted to look out into the acid-washed sky. The entire siding of the BoomJet was a window, one inch thick and clear as purified ice. Just one inch between me and a thirty thousand foot drop. Every minute, steam was released inside a paper-thin slit that ran through the outermost layer of the window, melting away any freeze before it had the chance to settle. I watched Los Angeles shrink to nothingness below. In an instant, as we rose above the cloak of smog, one of the most populated cities in the country vanished.
I was on my way to a place foreign to me in every way. I shifted my gaze forward again, and found myself staring back at my own reflection. Pale, because I spend less time in the sun than a baby’s butt. Full lips chapped raw by thin air and insufficient time to find a Vitamin E melt. Suddenly an electric-blue digital read-out popped up and hovered in the mirror showing a countdown clock: 48:12. In under an hour I would be on the ground in Washington, D.C.
Just forty-eight hours ago I’d been twiddling my thumbs during a calculus exam I couldn’t have cared less about. I closed my eyes, recalling those final moments of normalcy. My mind had been far away from that stupid math exam, thoughts bouncing all over the map, from Timbuktu to the shores of the Cayman Islands. Wanting to get home and see if my latest gambling bots were bringing down the house. Wishing I had some prickly pear cacao. Wondering if my dad was really dead. I always thought about my dad– every single day.
He used to take long walks when he wanted to think about things. We couldn’t know how long a walk would last– an hour, two, sometimes even three. He never came home from his last one. After a day we got really worried because he had become super depressed about things at work. It had been a roller coaster the week before he vanished. Right before his depression kicked in, he’d been overcome with excitement. I’ve heard that’s a sign of being manic, but I just don’t think that’s what was up with my dad. Either way, my mom and I never felt settled with it. I thought about it all the time. If he was dead, could he see me and was he proud? Or if he was alive, why didn’t he ever come back? It didn’t make sense that he might still be alive, because then he wouldn’t have left us, or at least he’d have told us what was going on. I couldn’t accept that he was dead.
My mom, on the other hand, was angry. One day she missed him and the next she cursed the fact that he’d ever existed. His pictures are still up in our house. They should be. He’s only been gone three years– three excruciatingly long years. They say time flies, but for my mom and me the weight of it lingers, like the chocolaty aroma of roasted Guatemalan coffee that clings to my hair after five minutes at Café Firenze. It doesn’t ever seem to go away.
I didn’t miss a beat between each “C” I’d marked off on the math test because, quite honestly, it’s absurd. The school administrators think I’m some kind of genius sheep. That my only purpose is to elevate the test scores of a public school on the brink of losing funding from the federal government. The rest of the class, deep in calculus hell, didn’t want to hear about me, what a great student I was and how I’d save their advanced math program. All they wanted were tickets to Endless Horizon concerts and to get bent on Mojo Sticks.
Our school was probably the last one in America that still had LCD monitors. We were so far behind the current technology and everything else, too, and the gap grew by the second. In every movie or show I watched, the schools had holographic touch-screens, but not ours. In malls, hospitals and schools across the country, virus and bacteria were eradicated by UV sweeper bee-bots, but not at our school. We just accepted the pungent odor of industrial ammonia. It was there for our own good, according to the administration. My teacher, Mr. Malin, still used a phone. He had been fiddling with it as he always did during exams, but in that moment he’d had his eyes on me.
I had been so done with that exam. Judging by the look on Mr. Malin’s face, he was so done with me, too.
“Yep.” He was a good guy, but there was no way I’d give in to the system.
Mr. Malin stepped up and headed out the classroom door. As I followed, I looked for any sign of approval from my peers across the room. I’d rather they see me as a misfit than some teacher’s pet, but nobody seemed to notice my calculus test strike. The teachers did everything in their power to keep me on a tight leash. They all hated my anti-authority threads: Nirvana Smells Like Teen Spirit tank top, cut-off bleached jean shorts and black sneakers marked up with vintage Wite-Out pen art. Three dozen other high school juniors cranked out numbers as best they knew how, but it wasn’t good enough for the administration. They expected me to bring up the test score average of the bunch, and I wasn’t down with that.
It was just the two of us on the other side of the classroom door, in a drab hallway of empty concrete sockets, remnants of lockers from when kids still carried books to class. Nobody knew what would take their place. Not us, not the teachers, not the people who made the plans to get rid of the obsolete lockers. It didn’t matter what the plans were anyhow. There was no money to complete them.
Mr. Malin eyed me with disappointment. The way he tipped his chin down and peered at me over his wire-framed eyeglasses will stick with me forever.
I figured things might go better if I spoke first.
“I know what you’re going to say.” My voice bounced off the cold, empty wall sockets.
“This isn’t you, Campbell.”
“If it isn’t me, then who is it?”
“You tell me.”
I couldn’t look Mr. Malin in the eye because I knew that I wasn’t being the best Doro Campbell I could be. But I was the Doro who could fight the tyrannical school system and deal with the judgment of all the kids at school. I wasn’t a goody-goody. I was Doro Campbell, certifiable badass. At least that was my goal.
“You tell me why the most gifted mathematician I’ve ever had in my classroom wants to present herself like she’s the worst. I just don’t get it.”
I blanked for an answer.
“The grades speak for themselves, Campbell. I wish I could do something more for you, but I just can’t. You should really be in advanced calculus, but at this rate, you’re going to end up repeating regular calculus your senior year and your gift will be flushed straight down the toilet into the bowels of the Los Angeles Unified sewer system. Do you know what it’s like down there?”
“I don’t really give a crap.” I grinned, proud of my pun.
Mr. Malin dropped his head. He’d tried to get through to me so many times before. I heard him, but I’d already made up my mind. As much as I respected Mr. Malin and knew he respected me, it was all about the big picture. I wasn’t giving in to the bureaucracy of this bunk education system.
Mr. Malin clenched his jaw. I felt bad for him. It was his life’s work, seeing to it that his most promising students spread their wings and soared. His face muscles twitched a few times before he finally nodded in resignation and stepped back into class.
I remember thinking that couldn’t be it. That it wasn’t my destiny in life to be a mindless follower. I was more than ready to split from this place.
I was so deep into re-living what had happened two days back, that I missed the BoomJet’s initial descent. There was no time to prepare. With uncanny speed we plummeted towards the earth at forty-five degrees, and then made a hard turn, parallel with the off-white concrete runway. A hollow thump and we landed, doing at least two hundred miles-per-hour. I was nearly suffocated by the restraint of the belts. My breath accelerated. We made a fast and abrupt, but considerably smooth, stop. I could breathe again.
Like I said, I was a BoomJet virgin. It kind of hurt, it went by super quick and before I had a chance to really enjoy it, it was over. We’d taken off from Los Angeles and landed on the outskirts of the nation’s capital in forty-eight minutes flat. Before I left, my mom said that the last time she’d flown to the east coast, it had taken nearly ten times as long. As I tried to imagine her reaction to the crazy-fast trip I’d just taken, I realized how much I missed her already.
A MATTE BLACK SpaceFlex Passenger Flight Vehicle sat on the tarmac. What I wouldn’t do for one of those. Ellen Malone stood up and smiled. “That’s us.”
“Awesome!” I thought, and followed Ellen off of the BoomJet without saying a word. I was dizzy and my legs buckled.
“Are you okay?”
“Amazing.” I stood up straight. I didn’t want her to see me weak, but that had been some intense G-Force. Ellen was fine, like she’d done this a million times. She straightened a crease in her blazer.
For the past three years the world had been crumbling all around me, but now it seemed someone was championing me. Ellen Malone. Although the jury was still out on her motivation, and the idea of reform school made me wince, I felt elevated here.
Next thing you know I was back in the air– this time, in a flighter amongst the affluent folk of metropolitan Washington, D.C. The airways just above the highways and roads had become transport paths for flighters after the federal government had approved the bill a few years back. Of course, it was made completely unaffordable to ninety-nine percent of the population, and since I didn’t have a license and my mom had no idea I was a millionaire, the only time I had experienced flighting was when I’d hot-hacked a flighter with my best friend, Julie.
That had been one seriously ill-fated joyride on a sweltering day back in May. We’d cruised over the 10 Freeway, and I veered off to pull some tricks between a stretch of decrepit, old Mediterranean-style stucco buildings in overpopulated, underprivileged hoods, where no other flighters ever went. We were doing about fifty, level with the roofs. People saw us and were cheering out their windows. Julie was egging me on like crazy. We always instigated each other to push the limits. I dropped us towards the road, just above the first story of the buildings, and then gunned it straight towards one of them. “Waaahoo!” I shouted. No fear. Julie screamed, braced herself in her seat, and just as we almost smashed into the first floor, I pulled back and we jetted straight up the side and into the sky, where we were met by the flighter cops. Busted in a stolen flighter just two weeks before my sixteenth birthday. I did two weeks in juvie, three months of community service and my license was revoked until I turn twenty.
The upside was that while my classmates were inside being lectured on flighter technology, I was outside experiencing it firsthand. I still don’t get what’s so wrong with that. In any case, my mom did. She was pissed beyond belief. It was just another event in a long series of me getting in trouble. It was so worth it. My school counselor and administrators were convinced I was acting up because I had lost my dad. I maintain that it was because everyone around me was so boring, that I needed to be proactive and inventive in order to have any fun.
But this unpredictable excursion with Ellen Malone, this I would classify as fun. From the moment we touched down in Virginia, I had the feeling that life would never be the same. I’d never been east of The Rockies, let alone to the other side of the country. This was a whole new horizon. For starters, the landscape was a stark contrast to what I was used to. Los Angeles’ glory days were long gone. My parents would tell me stories of a top-notch tourist destination that had slipped into an abyss of overpopulation and filth. Broken roads overridden with traffic around the clock. Baywatch waves covered in dudes and babes would be considered folklore if there weren’t countless images to prove their existence. From Malibu to Hermosa, the ocean water was just too polluted to swim in now.
Unlike every single metropolis across the globe, the air was clean here in Virginia, the roads paved to perfection. Smooth and black. And as we cruised above the endless river of traffic that carved its way through the tall sea of deep green trees, I saw something we most definitely did not have in LA. An elevated, four-lane roadway built in translucent concrete. Ellen saw that I was fixated on it. “The Smart Road. It runs above Route 66 into downtown Washington, D.C., as well as down Highway 81 to Blacksburg, Virginia, where the technology was first researched, blueprinted and constructed for many years before stretching thousands of miles across the country,” she explained. “Some of the session leaders you’ll be meeting were recruited out of the institutions that developed this sustainable transportation system. If we get a little closer, you’ll see the law enforcement vehicles, traffic and weather collection devices, medical units and commercial freight trucks traveling on it in automated, unmanned vehicles.”
“I’ve seen footage of it. In LA we’d be lucky to drive one block without hitting a pothole. It makes no sense. I mean, people in LA pay taxes too. Or at least, they did.”
“Taxes have nothing to do with this. It’s privatized. We have Flexer Technology Corporation to thank for this.”
“Hmm.” I pulled my little blue flexer from my ear and twirled it between my fingers, suddenly getting that its role was way more complex than simply providing me with personal computing functions. The Smart Road was fascinating. Optical fibers the size of pins composed the entire roadway, and let us see straight down through it to the road below.
I looked around at the areas beyond the road itself. It was the end of September in Virginia and fall was creeping in. I’d always heard of “seasons” and now I was starting to feel it. Even though I hadn’t experienced the infamous hot and humid east coast summer that had just rolled out, I could taste autumn rolling in. A cool, thick dankness lingered in the air, penetrating straight to my bones. Made me want some warm apple cider. I wasn’t in Los Angeles anymore.
The flighter exited into a wooded area and landed us in the driveway of an imposing colonial-style mansion. White pillars. Red brick. I was so excited I don’t think I blinked. This was a highly secured girls’ ambassador house, where tucked away behind a thick grove of leafy trees, I would be staying for my pre-orientation. Ellen and I got out of the flighter.
“Welcome to Great Falls.” Ellen was genuinely pleased to see that I was in awe. How could I not be? This place was unbelievable. Pristine, manicured lawns surrounded the estate, engulfing it in unending wooded serenity. Tufts of puffy, water-colored clouds traveled slowly in the pale blue-gray sky. The noise of the 405 was replaced with what I guessed were the soothing tones of crickets and bullfrogs, though I’d never heard those sounds in real life. I’d only seen places like this in pictures and movies. We were less than fifteen miles from the nation’s capital but it felt like I was in a dream, floating in a kind of peace I’d only imagined until now.
“Let’s go inside and get you settled.”
Ellen had a nice voice. Melodic and warm like she could have been a blues singer in another life. My heart raced as I followed her through a terra-cotta red front door that was hit smack in the center of this perfectly symmetrical home. But my guard was up. I thought I’d been sent here because of all the acting out I’d been doing, and yet I was getting the red carpet treatment. It didn’t add up. But until I had a reason not to make the most of what looked like a pretty sweet situation, I would.
Thirty-foot ceilings. Cotton ball-colored walls. Crisp light. Dark cherry wood floors so pristinely polished it looked like they’d never been walked on. A brass chandelier hung from the ceiling. Lights twinkled through its crystals, and just beyond it, a girl appeared at the top of the stairs.
“Jennifer, come down and meet our new guest.”
I stared as a super sophisticated looking teenage girl descended from a grand staircase that wound down into the foyer. Textbook posture. Hair pulled back in a perfect French braid, impeccably fitted preppy clothes from head to toe and a striped silver silk scarf draped from her long neck. Not your typical reform school girl, I thought to myself. She slid her hand delicately down a solid wood railing that was as thick as a Boa constrictor.
“Hi. Jennifer Wallingsford. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She extended her hand and waited a beat for my name. It hit me that this was the daughter of Congressman Frank Wallingsford.
“Hi.” I was intimidated for the first time in longer than I could remember. “Dorothy.” No idea why I said my whole first name. I never do that. Her dad was one of the most powerful men in the country, so that made her one of the most powerful daughters in the country. Actually– the entire world. I wondered what kind of trouble she’d gotten herself into to end up here.
“Doro is here from LA for a pre-orientation. We hope to have her join us this fall.”
“Nice. Well, make yourself at home. I’m headed to my parents’ house for dinner, but let me give you my contact info in case you need anything. Please, don’t hesitate to flex me.”
“Cool– great, that’s cool. Thanks.” I whipped my flexer out and pressed it against hers to swap contacts. Was this really happening? Her flexer was a flat, palm-sized red reflective mirror. Mine was currently set as a blue tune-plug since I’d been mellowing out to Bob Marley while waiting for the BoomJet to lift off, and hadn’t morphed it since then.
Ellen was cool, calm and collected. I tried to emulate her vibe. She spoke to Jennifer with the ease of an old family friend.
“Thanks, Jennifer. Please tell your dad I’ll see him first thing tomorrow to debrief him on my LA trip.”
Was she using the word “debrief” in reference to me? She must have been.
Jennifer’s eyes seemed sincere as they gently locked on mine before she headed out. “There are some spritzers and peaches I just put in the fridge, cacao in the pantry. Help yourself.” She spoke with a confidence that was completely devoid of the notorious Capitol Hill arrogance. It completely blew me away.
I was feeling pretty darn important at this point and couldn’t wait to get my hands on that cacao, though I’ve never heard someone my age use the term “spritzer.” Just go with it, I told myself, not sure just how much cooler things could get. Man, was I in for something else.
THE CRICKETS AND frogs sounded like they were amplified onto loud speakers that faced my room. It helped soothe my nerves, as I lay awake in bed all that night. I couldn’t get a second of shuteye, anticipating the next day’s itinerary. This was all happening BoomJet fast.
One of the rules of coming on this pre-orientation trip was that I was not allowed to call anyone from back home, including my mom. I missed her and Killer so much. We had not been apart like this ever before. Julie just wasn’t going to believe any of this, but I had to wait until I went back home for a visit before I could tell them all about it.
Despite only one good hour of sleep, I was considerably wired first thing in the morning. I could hear stirring in the house, but compared to the noise of the rat race I was used to, it all sounded peaceful. Hair dryers, showers, forks clinking on plates… usual sounds in an unusual place. Still, I didn’t see a soul as I peeked my head out the bedroom door. I made my way to the bathroom Ellen had shown me the night before.
An hour later I was downstairs with twelve other teenage girls. They were all dressed in blue uniforms and were totally in the groove of getting up and out the door. Jennifer was there with another girl. My gaze lingered on her for a moment. I still couldn’t believe I was living in the dorm where Jennifer Wallingsford stayed. She looked just as put together as she had the night before. She turned her head in my direction and as our eyes met, I quickly looked away.
Holy crap, she remembered my name.
“How was your first night?”
“Great. Slept like a baby.” I don’t know why I lied. I wanted her to think I was comfortable here. I mean, I was, but people generally equate lack of sleep to anxiety and all the things that come with that. Just like my dad though, I didn’t need much sleep. My mind was naturally caffeinated and it just carried my body along for the ride. Especially here in absurdly gorgeous Great Falls.
Ellen had instructed me to take the flighter bus with the rest of the girls, where I would be met by a student representative whom I would shadow for the day. I found myself moving through the front doors of the mansion with the pack of girls in blue. I was in my Nirvana tank. It was a bit chillier than tank top weather but I just had to rock it. No doubt I stood out. I hadn’t had time to wash it before I’d come on this trip, but it was sort of like my security blanket. It still smelled like coffee, too, which was both a comfort and a major tease because I needed one bad.
“Wasn’t Kurt Cobain that singer who shot himself in the head?” Jennifer’s friend inquired with a scowl hidden beneath a sour smirk.
I looked down at my shirt, “He was.”
Jennifer’s sour friend gave me a look as if it was me, not Kurt, who’d shot myself in the head– right in front of them.
“McKayla, this is Dorothy Campbell. She just got here from LA.”
I didn’t want to know McKayla, but if she was a friend of Jennifer Wallingsford, I wasn’t going to oppose.
“LA. So, like, why don’t you have a tan?”
Jennifer smiled at me as if to say, “Ignore her,” without saying anything at all. So I did. It wasn’t even two seconds before McKayla’s attention was elsewhere, admiring another girl’s motion graphic nail art. It was a deep blue lizard that flipped its red tongue out and flashed into a rose.
I got on the flighter bus with the rest of the girls and took the first empty seat I saw. The door shut and I heard the pressurizer filling. I turned to look out the window. Just as I began to admire the absurdly fresh scenery that nobody else seemed to notice, the windows glazed over in a mirrored blue hue and I was staring back at myself. I turned my focus to the flighter pilot at the front. He was wearing specialized goggles which I assumed let him see through the windshield, which now was mirrored too.
The flight was oddly disorienting. We must have made a dozen or more turns, a few U’s and some circles. What was the big secret? When we landed twenty minutes later, the blue mirrors dissolved, and once again, green took center stage through the windows.
The setting was similar to that at the girls’ ambassador house, only this time against a river’s edge. I figured it must be the Potomac. As I stepped off the flighter bus, mesmerizing, unapologetic white water rapids grabbed my attention. Turbulent waters slammed up against the earth, spreading stones in jagged, abstract patterns. As the morning dew disappeared, the smell of thick, grassy air filled my nose and its green taste settled down through the back of my throat. My previously chapped lips suddenly felt moist and revived. This was simultaneously unreal and as real as real gets.
Once again, I followed the pack. Having prided myself in non-conformity since as far back as I could remember, I took each stride by envisioning myself as the black sheep among all the girls in blue. No clue where we were headed. There were no buildings or signs of life other than a few birds and a squirrel or two. I swear to god I looked up and saw an eagle, and unless my eyes were cheating me, it was bald. Another legend I’d only seen in pictures. Was this a pit stop? I’d thought we were going to a school.
The blue herd of girls stopped in a patch of fairytale grass that was encircled in a shiny, metallic gold ring that lay flush to the field. It was probably about twenty yards in diameter. I looked around, perplexed and intrigued. Jennifer Wallingsford stood with McKayla and a few others, mingling in just the way mingling happened back at my school. She caught me looking at her and waved me over.
“This doesn’t look like a school,” I said.
“Don’t worry, soon it will all make sense.”
“If you say so.” Jennifer was cool, but I wasn’t going to buy into everything she said unless it made sense to me.
“Believe me, I know exactly how you feel. Even though I grew up in this area, nothing could have prepared me for this.”
I heard a low hum and within seconds we were under a dome of gold aerogel that emerged from the ground and cupped us against the earth. A hydraulic system began to lower the circle of grass that we stood on. I braced myself, unsure of what was happening. Everyone else just relaxed and carried on with their conversations. This was completely normal to all of them, but it was so not-normal to me. In thirty seconds, we were grounded.
The dome disappeared and I found myself standing inside a structure filled with bustling human life. The architecture around me was phenomenal, a modern rendering of the best elements of American colonial style– just as I’d seen so far in the land above. Lots of teenagers and a few adults in form-fitting ultramarine blue uniforms filled these below-ground halls. I just stood there, taking it in. This place didn’t seem like any kind of school, especially not a reform school. There was a galactic grandeur in the air that no school could generate.
“Dorothy Campbell.” I turned to see a kid my age, smiling and extending his hand. I scanned him without moving my eyes– thin, shaggy head of dark brown hair, big brown puppy dog eyes, half-tucked shirt, braces, friendship bracelets. Friendship bracelets. I breathed a sigh of relief in finding a shred of something– someone I could relate to. I smiled back.
“Welcome to Seneca. I’m Timmy Reba, your personal student escort for pre-orientation.”
And so, there it was– they called it Seneca.
“They told me I’m your shadow for the day.”
“Please. Friends call me Reba. It’s my last name. Mi padre es Puertorriqueno.”
Reba rolled his R’s with gusto. Electricity surged out of this kid’s pores as if kinetic energy was harvested and redistributed through his braces. Considering where I was, maybe it was.
“I’m sure you’re a little disoriented.”
A little? How was this normal to all these people?
“Don’t worry, you’ll be up to speed in no time. Campbella. Is it okay if I call you that? It really works for you.”
Reba waved his hand for me to follow him. “First things first, let’s get you your blues.”
Read more Seneca Rebel, Chapters 4 – 6 available now!