Chapter 2: Destruction, distraction, deflection


Myra and Alex fed the kids bacon and toast with homemade apple jam from the nearby orchard. They passed a couple hours playing around at wiffle ball. Once everyone had digested their food, they changed into their swimsuits and charged down to the lake. It really was a perfect lake. The kids could swim and splash for hours every day without getting bored. Their adoration of the lake made Alex’s story even more offensive, like a smear campaign against a longtime ally.
Thankfully the kids were young enough for memories to fall away overnight, and this morning they were eager to reach the water. They tumbled over the grass to the beach, where some plopped happily in the sand while others plunged knee-deep into the shallows. Fearless little Cassie raced down the dock and threw herself into the water, creating a magnificent splash as she cannonballed in. A circular sheet of water rushed up and rained down in droplets of wet shrapnel.
“Mind if I take the water shift?” Alex asked Myra.
“Go ahead,” she said. She settled onto the beach and watched Alex slip off his t-shirt, leaving him bare-chested in navy swim trunks. He dove into the lake as Cassie had, but instead of triggering an explosion, he sliced into the water with arms like a knife and a body that sank with aerodynamic precision, barely displacing a drop. The water shivered where he’d gone in, and after a few seconds his head reemerged. He took a few gasping breaths and pushed his wet hair back from his forehead.
“The water’s great!” he called to her.
She offered him a smile and a slight wave.
Most of the other kids followed Cassie and Alex’s lead, swimming farther out to the thrilling depth where they didn’t immediately feel the sandy bottom with their toes when they tried to touch the bottom.
Percy lagged behind, eyeing the water but ultimately plopping down on the sand next to Myra.
“You don’t feel like swimming today?” she asked him.
He looked up at her with owlish eyes and shook his head solemnly. “No, I don’t think I do,” he said. “I think I just don’t feel like it today.”
“Hey, that’s fine,” she said. “I need someone out here to keep me company.”
He blinked slowly. “It’s a good thing I’m here, isn’t it?” he said.
“It’s great, Percy,” she said with unnecessary zeal. He seemed so wise yet so fragile, like a philosopher made of spun glass. The urge to protect him overtook her. “Want to make a sandcastle with me?” she said.
He nodded. She handed him the bucket she’d carried down, a squat yellow plastic cylinder in which she’d stowed a miniature plastic shovel. He removed the shovel from the bucket and began shoveling up small scoops of sand to deposit into the bucket.
“Can I help?” she asked, watching his meticulous work.
“I don’t think so,” he answered. “Unless you have another shovel?”
“I could use my hands,” she said.
He looked up from the sand, his gaze moving from her face to her hands and back to her face. “No, I don’t think so,” he concluded.
“Okay, Perce,” she accepted. “Just let me know. I’ll be right here.”
“Oh, good,” he said. Bestowing serious responsibility on her, he said, “You can watch for the sand pirates.”
Her eyebrows inched up. “Uh-oh. Who are the sand pirates?”
“The sand pirates are bad guys who come out of the sand to wreck sandcastles,” he explained. “You never know when they’ll come, so you have to be very alert when you’re making a sandcastle.” Tipping his head in acknowledgment, he said, “That’s where you come in.”
She smiled. Given a little patience, a child always revealed their imagination, no matter how somber they seemed. “Don’t worry, Perce, I’m on the lookout,” she said, raising her hand to her forehead in a small salute. “The sand pirates don’t know who they’re up against.”
He scrutinized her for a long moment before returning the salute and then turning back to the sand, shovel raised.

As the morning came to a close, Percy had filled five buckets and assembled five sand towers, a square of four plus one in the center. Now he set the bucket aside and began building the walls of the square, still relying on the shovel to move sand in straight lines connecting the cylindrical towers.
Myra strove to stay alert, but despite the looming sand pirate threat, her concentration waned. Her gaze drifted away from Percy’s methodical construction. The rest of the kids were taking a break after a long stretch of swimming. Two other boys had returned to shore and were sprawled out on the sand like beached whales. Two girls practiced their hand-clapping games together, and another boy and girl lay on their stomachs, reaching their hands down to poke at the water's surface. Only Cassie kept swimming, indefatigable, still exuberantly kicking around in laps and figure eights by herself.
Alex sat on the edge of the dock, his legs dangling over the edge, his feet skimming in and out of the water. He was talking and laughing with the kids, looking over at the clappers, then the splashers, then back to the clappers, grinning and gesturing as he shared some funny thought with the whole group. Myra couldn’t make out what he was saying from so far away. She just heard the pitch of his voice rising and falling like a wave as he spoke.
He was angled away from her, so she caught different views of his face as he turned in different directions, but she could consistently see the bare expanse of his torso. His skin was already so tan, a toasty bronze that she knew from his sun-bleached blond hair meant that he’d browned in the sun for hours upon days. Her own skin was even darker, but from her natural pigment rather than sun exposure, and she couldn’t help but study the contrast of his tanned skin against his light hair. Watching his hair flutter as he turned back and forth, she thought of its texture, both coarse and soft, slightly damp from the lake but already mostly dried from the sun, smelling fresh and earthy.
Her throat constricted and she suddenly felt very thirsty. She knew from experience that the lakewater was so clean, clean enough to drink even though she usually didn’t, but now she imagined lying on her back on the dock with her lips parted as Alex knelt next to her, lifting water from the lake in his cupped hands and dripping the liquid into her open mouth.
A bloodcurdling cry erupted beside her. She instinctively leapt up, her heart thudding and her adrenaline spiking wildly.
Percy was yelling, arms flailing, as he trampled over his own sandcastle. His tiny feet crushed the immaculately constructed towers into crumbling heaps of sand, and the recently completed walls offered no protection against the frenzied stampede from above.
“What are you doing?” Myra cried.
Mashing the castle’s remains into an unrecognizable ruin, Percy shrieked, “It’s the sand pirates! You were supposed to protect us!”
Myra didn’t know whether to join him or stop him, laugh or cry. She felt slightly distraught watching him galloping across the misshapen mounds of sand, but she sensed that her disorientation at being pulled out of her daydream was making her overly sensitive, and Percy seemed to be enjoying himself. So she stood by as he finished razing the sandcastle, as thorough in destruction as in creation, until the sand was evenly dispersed and there was little trace of anything having existed on this patch of beach.
Percy collapsed onto the site in tired satisfaction, then looked up. “What happened, Myra? You promised you were watching!”
She looked down at the boy who hadn’t let her scoop sand with her bare hands, his limbs splayed, his hair and skin encrusted with gritty granules.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t know what to watch for.”
He sat up and dusted his arms off, recovering his energy and composure. “That’s okay,” he said.
“Do you want to go swim with your sister now?” she offered.
Percy contemplated the water, then suddenly sprung to his feet. “Yes!” he said.
The two of them ran toward the lake, splashing into the shallows and then swimming out farther.
Percy paddled around for almost a half-hour as Cassie swam in circles around him before lunchtime arrived. The kids gathered themselves from the lake and the dock and the beach and hiked up to the mess hall together. Alex made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Myra sliced apples to dip in caramel for dessert. The kids ate ravenously, the sun and swimming having amplified their appetites. Alex ate like an overgrown child, polishing off three sandwiches and a few handfuls of apple slices. Myra chewed her sandwich, watching the sun-kissed kids happily devouring the food, giggling with each other as their lips stained purple from the jelly and their mouths gummed up with peanut butter and caramel.
After the meal, she recruited Alex to help her sunscreen the kids, smearing their noses and shoulders with sticky white lotion. The kids squirmed and complained, but they liked looking at their reflections in the broad wall-mounted mirror, admiring their ghostly reflections with white-tinted skin and wide, curious eyes.
It was a test of their self-control when Myra acquiesced to the kids’ pleading and allowed them to return to the lake even though they couldn’t swim for another hour. They patted their stomachs, imagined the mysterious churning activity of their bodies digesting sandwiches, unknown forces transforming morsels of peanut butter and jelly into energy to paddle and kick through the water. They bargained for play privileges, begging Myra to let them swim (no), wade (no), submerge their feet from the dock (okay, fine).
Most of them weren’t tall enough for their feet to reach the water anyway, but they sat happily in a line along the edge, swinging their feet, the taller ones ruffling the surface of the water with their big toes and the shorter ones pretending they weren’t jealous. Alex and Myra sat next to each other in the middle, kids lined up on either side of them like ducklings.
During this early afternoon, the sky was cloudless and the sun blazed. Alex put his hand on Myra’s arm and nudged her forward. His fingers branding her flesh, she followed his lead and leaned forward to look down past their knees. The dazzling brightness of the day transformed the lake into a mirror, and the whole line of figures was reflected with photographic precision. She compelled herself to avoid looking at his image, even though she knew that his whole chest would be visible, an errant glance would reveal it.
Instead she focused on the kids. She watched Cassie proudly sending flecks of water jumping forward with her toes, as Percy struggled next to her to reach the water. Despite the twins’ identical features, Cassie was slightly taller, a fact she rarely let Percy forget. Myra generally diffused sibling tensions, but she knew that in just a few years Percy would be a foot taller, so she let Cassie have her time.
Alex scooched closer. She felt the rough mesh of his swim trunks brushing her thigh. “The water captures your hair so well,” he said softly, looking down at the reflection. “I can see every curl and highlight.”
She studied her own reflection. He was right about her hair, but thankfully her face appeared an even brown, concealing the heat she felt rising in her cheeks.
“See it?” he prompted.
“Yeah, I guess,” she said.
He touched his toe to the image of one tight curl spiraling out. “Gorgeous,” he said.
Myra wriggled out from between Alex and Percy, clambering to her feet on the dock. “Okay, everyone!” she called. “The wait is up, back to swimming!”
The kids cheered and plopped off the edge of the dock into the water. Myra dove off, her hands meeting an identical pair in the lake’s reflection, her body submerging into its mirror image, and her twenty toes vanishing with a small splash.