Chapter 3: Show and tell

There was even less cleanup tonight than last night. With the kids asleep, Myra put away the cards and games that had been played and scattered about that evening. She had Alex in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher, and she could hear the clatter and clink of him stacking plates and sorting silverware. Myra was finishing quickly so she slowed down, carefully aligning stacks of playing cards and recounting board game figurines to make sure future games weren’t thwarted by missing pieces, an absent six-sided die or five-pronged battleship making the whole game a disappointing, flawed undertaking for countless summers to come.
She was counting checkers when he came out of the kitchen. “Anything else?” he asked.
“Nope.” She verified twelve red, twelve black, and put the lid on the cardboard box. “Done.” She stood and started toward the door. As she reached out for the doorknob, she remembered about tomorrow and spun around to tell him. He was right behind her and they collided.
“Sorry,” she said, flustered.
“No, it was me,” he said, briefly holding her shoulders to steady her.
“I just remembered,” she said, “since we’re going canoeing tomorrow, we’ll have to be up early again so we’re ready to move the canoes from the boathouse.”
“Sure,” he said. “Or we could just move them now.”
She frowned. “It’ll be pitch black over there. We’ll wait until morning.”
“Let’s not,” she said.
“All right,” he conceded, easygoing and deferential. “It’s still early, though,” he said. “Don’t tell me you’re already ready to sleep.”
She hesitated, thinking of her restlessness last night, the frustration of lying awake alone. “Not quite,” she said.
He was still standing close to her, nearly as close as when they’d first bumped into each other. His chest rose under his wrinkled t-shirt as he took a deep breath. He exhaled and asked, “Can I show you something?”
For the first time, she met his eager gaze. His eyes shone hopefully while his slight squint revealed his nervous anticipation. His question hung in the sliver of space between them.
Willing herself to not take a step backward, she said, “Okay.”
He sighed a wavering breath and grinned at her. “Okay,” he cheered.
She followed him to the boys’ cabin, waited outside while he crept in. She turned away from the yellow light swarming with insects, looked out into the night. She couldn’t see much except shapes and shadows, but she listened with familiar awe to the vibrant sounds of the nighttime wilderness. The birds were silent, but filling the air were choirs of humming cicadas and harmonizing crickets, the bassline throb of croaking frogs, and the supersonic squeak of echolocating bats.
Myra was losing herself in the melodies when the door thudded shut and Alex stood beside her.
“To the lake?” he said.
She inspected him under the bright light, looking for whatever he’d gone in to retrieve.
Acknowledging her scrutiny, he held up a small wooden box.
“We won’t be able to see anything,” she said.
“That’s all right,” he said. “You know the land so well.”
“Yes,” she said, even though losing her way wasn’t the problem she meant. She led him down to the water. They sat on the dock, returning to where they’d been that afternoon, feet over the edge, but now in the indigo darkness rather than white daylight. The night music trilled louder than ever.
“So?” she said.
“Well,” he started clumsily. “I feel like we haven’t had a chance to really get to know each other. So I wanted to show you this.”
He offered her the box. She cautiously reached for it, her fingers splaying out in anticipation of its dimensions.
He was just about to set the box in her hand when she sharply pulled her arm back, viciously slapping her forearm with her other hand. “Damn it,” she hissed. Recovering a moment later, she said, “Sorry. Mosquito.” She extended her arm once more. This time she successfully procured the box. The wood was smooth and cool against her skin, with a slight grain. She traced its contours with her fingers and found a small metal clasp holding it shut.
“Go ahead,” he said.
She flipped the clasp open and raised the lid. Inside, she felt more wood, numerous bits that clacked together as she stirred them. She plucked one out and rubbed it between her fingers. It was irregularly shaped, something unrecognizable both geometrically and functionally, threads of wood punctuated by negative spaces.
“What are they?” she asked.
“Can I feel?” he said. She dropped the chip into his outstretched palm. He handled it as she had, probing it, and said, “This one’s a lion.”
“A lion?” she said. “Like the animal?”
“Yeah.” He handed it back to her and she reexamined it with the new information. She supposed she could make out a rounded head, stubby legs, a curving tail, but there was an incongruous nub on its back.
“What are these? Toys?”
“They’re pendants,” he said. “Feel the little ring at the top, for a chain?”
“Yeah,” she said. She set the lion back in the box, assessed the sheer quantity and intricacy of the tokens. “You made all of these?”
“I whittled them, yeah.”
“Wow.” She thought of the hundreds of hours he must have spent creating the contents of the box she’d casually held in one hand, a clumsy movement or careless motion enough to send the whole collection plunging into the lake. She shut the box with both hands and carefully secured the metal clasp once more. She passed the box back to him, and he held it in his lap, his hands encircling it.
“Are they all animals?” she said.
“No,” he said. “There’s a bunch of different figures. Most of them are of nature, though. Plants and animals.”
“They’re beautiful,” she said. Smiling, she corrected, “I can’t really see them at all, but they feel beautiful.”
“Thanks,” he said, his voice warm with pride.
“It’s true,” she said, feeling generous as imagination and intimacy surprised her and prised open her heart like a locket.
They lapsed into an easy silence, hearing the wind stir the trees’ leaves to add an extra layer of soughing percussion to the soundscape.
“Are you okay?” he asked, and she realized she’d been absentmindedly scratching her arm.
“Yeah,” she said. “It itches pretty badly, but the usual amount.”
“Can I…?” His voice drifted off as he reached in her direction. She let him hold her forearm, stroking her skin in deliberate lines as he searched for the raised ring of the mosquito bite.
He found it, circled its puffy perimeter with the pad of his thumb, taking care to rub firmly to soothe instead of tickle. Then he leaned down, lowered his head, and pressed his mouth over the bite. His lips parted and his tongue stroked the small circle of soreness.
His mouth tensed and he massaged the skin between his lips, wetting it with his undulating tongue. The bite warmed and its discomfort abated as he continued. The sensation of his ministrations preoccupied her, and it felt like every nerve ending in her body had migrated to that coin-sized spot and was now firing urgently.
When he withdrew, the cool night air played across her damp skin, making it feel icy cold. She stayed absolutely still. She could hear him breathing next to her, inhales and exhales. His breathing sounded heavier than usual, but her hearing was razor-sharp in the darkness, so maybe she was just hypersensitive to the susurrating air streaming into and out of his lungs.
He said in a low, hoarse voice, “Do you feel better?”
Her voice caught in her throat, and she coughed softly. “It’s better,” she whispered. “I don’t think it will last very long, though.”
He leaned closer so the sleeves of their t-shirts skimmed against each other. She caught his scent and it was like she’d imagined yesterday, except with a faint note of spice, stronger than cinnamon but sweeter than cayenne.
“Tell me when it itches again,” he said. The throbbing croak of frogs swelled between them until he added, “Okay?”
She raised her feet up onto the dock, her legs folding into an uneven kneel. “It’s really getting late,” she said. Finding her balance as she stood on tingling feet, she said, “We need to get some sleep. We’ll be doing all the work tomorrow, the kids will be dead weight.”
He stood too. “Don’t forget to be up early to move the canoes.”
“You listened, I’m glad,” she said. They traced their way up to the camp. As they parted ways, Alex called, “Goodnight, Myra.”
“You, too,” she said.
The lightbulb outside the girls’ cabin was swarming with moths, completely silent but flying a frenzied dance like drunken devotees. In the darkness, they would have been undetectable.


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