Chapter 6: Capsized

Myra accompanied everyone else back to shore. She hadn’t even packed towels because they’d been short on space and the coolers trumped towels, but now she regretted it. Her punishment was being forced to watch wet, shivering children with no ability to dry them. Their savior was the sun and the narrow yet potent strip of light and heat it cast on the beach. They all settled in a sunbeam on the sand, circling around one cooler. Myra cracked it open and passed around ham sandwiches and bottled waters.
For once everyone ate quietly, chewing forcefully and swigging purified water, as if eating with exaggerated exertion would temporarily warm them while they waited impatiently to dry.
Meanwhile, Alex and the other three kids were staying warm with their swimming. Alex was leading them in long zig-zags, each pass taking them a little farther from shore. Myra watched the predictable procession as she finished a soggy sandwich. Alex shot through the water like a dart, arms and legs slicing into the water in exactly the right way to propel him forward. Aldo followed with admirable speed; Joey next, with excellent form that contradicted his unruly maverick attitude; Cassie a close third, sheer heart powering her along accordioned lines in the chilly water.
Myra washed down a mushy bite with a mouthful of cool water, her gaze tracing back and forth as the four figures continued their routine, left to right to left, creeping away from shore as the lines angled out toward the center of the lake, toward reliable full sun and clusters of creamy lilies and water deep enough that toes couldn’t reach the bottom and neither could sunbeams, the lakebed an unseen muddy plane that theoretically existed far beneath them.
Alex reversed left to right, then Aldo, then Joey, then Cassie, just like the previous dozen times. Except Cassie’s turn was a little wobblier than before. She briefly tipped at a precarious angle, off-kilter for a queasy moment, before at last finishing the turn, straightening her course, and reestablishing her equilibrium. Her moment of imbalance set her behind, and she kicked extra hard to keep up.
Her following turn was even more hazardous. She rocked like a ship in stormy seas, her body’s balance momentarily unresponsive to her intent. Yet after a spirited fight she righted herself, recharted her course, and took off, now trailing Joey by several lengths and counting.
On the next turn, she capsized. Her churning limbs sent out splatters of water as she flailed.
Myra leapt to her feet, water bottle tumbling to the ground. Alex was oblivious, continuing his course away from Cassie to the opposite end of the line. Myra cupped her hands around her mouth and screamed, “Alex!” But he didn’t hear her.
He executed his neat turn and headed back in Cassie’s direction. Myra waited for him to see the struggling girl at the center of the splashing water and take action. But still, as he swam in her general direction, angled slightly farther out but well within the range of vision, he did nothing. He was swimming the breaststroke, and his head rose out of the water every other second to breathe. Yet he didn’t notice Cassie, breath after breath he didn’t notice her. He just sucked in his oxygen without realizing she didn’t have enough.
Yet he would have to notice her once he got all the way across. He wouldn’t collide with her, but he’d be just a few feet from her. Myra waited, shouting every few seconds when her frustration built, desperately monitoring every inch of gradually-shrinking distance between him and Cassie.
Myra was fixated on Cassie’s faltering form as well as the raw distance between the girl and Alex. But as she shouted again, she looked over at him swimming.
The first time she saw what was happening as he came up for air, she didn’t comprehend it. The second time, she told herself she must be misunderstanding. But by the third time she was positive what she was witnessing.
Every time he arose from the water to breathe, he was looking directly at Cassie, watching her drown in watery stop-motion.
Myra ran into the water, sloshing through the shallows and then swimming toward Cassie with acute urgency. The water no longer felt cold. It didn’t even possess a temperature. It was nothing except distance and physical resistance that impeded her from reaching Cassie immediately.
Myra was hurtling through the water but she felt like she was moving in slow motion. Cassie was so far from shore that she wouldn’t arrive in time. Maybe if she hadn’t spent so long just sitting on the fucking beach, waiting for Alex to save her, but she had, and Cassie would bear the punishment for Myra’s mistake.
It was impossible to swim at top speed while constantly checking on Cassie, so Myra forced herself to just swim. Monitoring the ugly details wouldn’t give her any ability to help. She raced in a frantic freestyle, competing for the most valuable prize. She forced her arms to paddle faster, her legs to kick harder.
She was on the final stretch, closing in, and now she allowed herself to look up, to rub the water out of her eyes and pinpoint the finish line in the hopes that she hadn’t already lost.
She located Cassie, but the girl was no longer struggling against the water. Instead, she was pressed to Alex’s chest, her hands clinging around his neck, as he held her in his arms and treaded water with his legs. Aldo and Joey paddled next to him.
Myra swam up to them, coughing and trembling.
“Look who’s joining us!” Alex said to Cassie, and then softer to Myra, “Hey, you.”
She shakily treaded water as she coughed to clear the water from her lungs.
“Are you all right?” Alex asked, watching her in alarm. He closed the short distance between them and said, “Here, hold onto my shoulder.”
Myra tried to recover on her own, but the coughing was making her lose control of her torso and her legs felt like rubber. She reluctantly rested her hands on his shoulder, using his steady body to support her as she recuperated. He lifted one hand from cradling Cassie to rub Myra’s back, soothing her as her coughing abated and a sheen of watery snot dribbled down her upper lip.
“What’s wrong?” Cassie asked, looking from Myra to Alex for an explanation. The girl’s voice was strained with apprehension, but otherwise seemingly normal.
“Nothing,” Myra wheezed. “I’m fine.” She studied Cassie, scrutinizing her pale cheeks but bright eyes and even breathing. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“Me?” Cassie said. “Why?”
Cautiously, trying to watch both Cassie’s and Alex’s expression as she spoke, Myra said, “I saw you from the beach—you were getting tired—I thought you were having trouble swimming.”
Cassie firmly shook her head, but Myra caught a flash of uneasiness that confirmed her conclusions, which had seemed unmistakable from the shore anyway.
Myra was more interested in Alex’s reaction. He was impassive, his face utterly blank through her veiled description of noticing a child drowning.
“I wasn’t tired,” Cassie defended. “I just got bored.”
Not meaning to be accusatory, but nevertheless ending up that way, Myra said, “Then why is Alex holding you?”
Cassie shrugged.
“Alex?” Myra interrogated.
“We were just swimming,” he said casually.
“Yeah,” Cassie confirmed, nodding, her arms still around Alex’s neck.
Myra frowned. She knew she was coming across as overprotective and suspicious, but she was drawing upon her complete willpower reserves to resist tearing Cassie from Alex’s arms. “Fine,” she said. “It’s getting late, it’s time to leave.”
No one dissented. Alex released Cassie and all five of them swam back to shore, Myra and Alex and Cassie and the two boys, like a familial pod, as if everything was normal and everyone was safe.
The kids who had been on the beach for a while were basically dry now, which warmed them up and raised their spirits. As everyone loaded into the canoes, they started chatting again, a quiet buzz of conversation infusing more life into the subdued mood.
The kids switched up their distribution across the two boats, and this time Myra let Cassie and Caitlin sit together. She was dismayed when the girls chose to sit with Alex, but four of them had to sit with him, and there weren’t other children she would have readily set forward in sacrifice for those two.
As they paddled back to camp, Myra regularly checked in on the other boat, eyeing Alex and his kids, scrutinizing their faces and body language for even a hint of unrest. Everything seemed normal, but even seeing him look at Cassie, smiling, laughing, made her taste bile in the back of her throat.
On this ride, Percy was captivating both Joey and Grace in a remarkable demonstration of appealing to a wide audience. Grace, usually so aloof, and Joey, normally so boisterous, were both listening with rapt dedication, seated next to each other on the bench in front of Myra. Percy sat at the bow, facing backwards and reciting a story entirely of his own invention about the Princess Nymphaea and her nemesis, the Queen Odorata. As Percy described the women’s longstanding feud, Myra listened to the developing story, noticing not only the dramatic plotting but also Percy’s hushed voice that led Grace and Joey to lean forward, anxiously following every word.
They were approaching their home beach as Percy recounted how the many years of simmering hostility between the princess and the queen at last culminated in an underwater battle of strength and cunning. The two women were closely matched, but after a grueling exchange of attacks and defenses, Nymphaea ultimately triumphed over Odorata, bringing peace and prosperity to the underwater empire.
Myra guided the canoe into the shallows and hopped out to drag it farther ashore. She held the bow steady as the kids got out, splashing knee-deep into the water and then sloshing up to the dry beach, inadvertently coating their wet feet and legs with sand. Alex was doing the same, and they dragged their canoes in parallel high enough up on the beach to prevent them from sliding back into the water and drifting off.
The kids shed their lifejackets for the last time. The sun was beating down on the camp in its familiar, generous way, and the droplets of bathtub-warm water on the kids’ legs quickly evaporated. Luke even expressed interest in going swimming again here, but Myra rejected the request swiftly and forcefully before anyone else could second his proposition. Instead she steered them toward the volleyball court. The court was a large patch of transplanted sand that had been fashioned in the shape of a rectangle, with a net strung up to bisect it. Myra located the camp’s sole volleyball, which was a bit dusty and had transformed from white to gray with age, but it worked fine. They split up into two teams and played a casual game, bumping and setting the ball over the net, or at least occasionally over the net. Myra was pleased that Alex was unexpectedly poor at volleyball. He had the strength but not the technique, and the ball would go flying off to plop onto the grass yards away from the court. The kids didn’t mind, it amused them, and they had fun taking turns chasing down the rogue ball and bringing it back to the group. But although Alex laughed it off, joked and made it into another aspect of the game, Myra could tell by his clenched jaw even as he smiled that he was trying hard and bothered by his ineptness. She felt a sharp thrill at witnessing him fail at something, no matter how inconsequential.
It wasn’t long before Alex bowed out and volunteered to start preparing dinner. Myra knew he didn’t care for cooking, so his acquiescence was especially striking. But she happily let him go, and he disappeared into the mess hall, leaving her with the children. She sat out now, letting them play four-on-four, sustaining intermittent volleys between stretches of good-spirited clumsiness.
Myra stood on the sidelines, hands on her hips as she watched the game. The ball arced back and forth, but she barely followed its movements. Instead she studied each of the children. Cassie had a fierce focus and unfaltering energy that empowered her average athletic abilities, while Joey was the opposite, constantly distracted but with a staggering natural athleticism that revealed itself during infrequent occasions when his wandering attention happened to fall upon the ball at the precise moment he needed to act. He struck, walloping the ball to send it hurtling up, careening over the net, and crashing down on the opponent’s side of the court, where they were powerless to volley the meteoric ball. Even Percy wasn’t bad, with placid attention and a light, deliberate touch.
Myra returned to Cassie, watched her tense and triumphant like a volleyball goddess. She felt comforted that Cassie seemed totally unaffected by her earlier incident, physically as unstoppable as ever, and mentally indefatigable as well. But Myra also felt a lingering unease, as if she were glimpsing the shadow of a memory, and she couldn’t pinpoint whether she was reminiscing over a prior event or recollecting an old nightmare.