Chapter 11: Injury and espionage

     Once that round of cards ended, they didn’t play another. The more perceptive children were uneasy, and the less perceptive ones were bored. Percy volunteered to sort the cards back into two decks, and the rest of the kids drifted away to take up other activities. Some found their way to Life, the rest to Monopoly: games where you settled in, played earnestly for a long time, made honest progress toward a respectable end. No more rounds, no more bluffing, no more studying your friends’ faces to recognize their deceit.
     Stunned and ashamed, Myra endured to assist in making the transition to new pastimes, but at the soonest possible moment she bowed out to the kitchen. It was time to start preparing lunch, plus she was desperate to retreat into privacy so she could recover.
     She shut the kitchen door behind her, leaned against it, and exhaled a heavy, shuddering breath. She closed her eyes and concentrated on calming herself, at the very least making sure that her heart didn’t hammer a hole through her chest and flop out onto the linoleum floor.
     But at least her body clamored to acknowledge the shock, beating back against the disturbing finesse with which he subtly manipulated and decimated her.
     Her heart was still pounding, but now securely within the confines of her ribcage. She trudged to the fridge and opened it, staring blankly at the fluorescent-lit contents. She pulled out a block of cheddar cheese, then let the door swing and seal shut.
     She found a sturdy knife in the cutlery drawer and began slicing the cheese. The cheese resisted the knife’s incisions, but as she applied steady pressure, it yielded and the knife sank through the cheddar.
     She set the finished slices on a plate, and the heap of cheese grew as she sliced away. She cut twenty-five, thinking that most kids would eat two, and it was better to have leftovers than be short and engender dissatisfaction.
     She grabbed a few loaves of bread from the cupboard and went to the fridge again, this time for butter. She started heating a pan over the gas burner and began assembling sandwiches, each slab of cheese enveloped by two slices of bread.
     When the pan was hot enough, she melted a thick pat of butter, swirling it around with a spatula to coat the pan’s surface. The solid butter conceded its shape to the heat, collapsing into creamy yellow puddles.
     She could only fit two sandwiches at a time in the pan, so she switched on the oven and kept the finished sandwiches warm piled up on a baking sheet on low heat.
     She multitasked by opening a few oversized cans of tomato soup, the can opener biting into the metal and chewing around the rim with serrated teeth. She poured the cans’ contents into a pot, waiting to cook a few more rounds of sandwiches before beginning to heat it up, trying to get the timing right so everything was finished and piping hot together.
     To complete the trifecta, Myra fetched some carrots from the fridge, proper full-sized whole carrots which she peeled, the peeler scraping the tough skin off the carrots, exposing their fresh, bright orange cores. She chopped them into sticks that she stacked on two serving plates, where they looked like thick, vivid pick-up-sticks.
     The soup was heating by now, and the sandwiches were almost complete. After engaging in the meticulous multitasking ritual of preparing a meal, Myra felt replenished. She had been ridiculous to overreact so outlandishly, when really almost nothing whatsoever had happened. She lost a card game. That was it.
     She returned to the mess hall, where the kids and Alex were still playing happily. They’d been paying attention, however, to the enticing aromas of lunch which arose and layered together.
     “Could a few people help me set the table?” Myra called. She got more than enough volunteers who were eager to become in closer proximity to the food. She distributed plates, bowls, silverware, glasses, and napkins to the kids, and they arranged everything nicely on the dining table. They set out the plates of carrot sticks, Alex carried the steaming pot of soup to the table, and Myra retrieved the pan of melty, golden brown sandwiches from the oven.
     They gathered around the table, snatching up sandwiches as Alex ladled soup into everyone’s bowls. Myra took a sandwich of her own, broke off a corner and dipped it in her soup. She savored the interplay between crunchy bread, sharp rich cheddar, and tangy tomato, pleased with her execution and relieved that none of her negative emotions manifested as bitter tastes or unpalatable textures. The meal tasted like peace and comfort, and everyone gobbled it up.
     Soon the baking sheet was empty except for a few crumbs. They’d devoured all twenty-five sandwiches, plus the entire pot of soup, and even nearly all of the carrot sticks.
     Even though everyone was stuffed, Luke opened his mouth, lips shiny with grease, and said, “What’s for dessert?”
     Myra hadn’t baked anything, but they ate boxed chocolate chip cookies with her secret weapon, peanut butter. She brought out a couple of jars and they spread peanut butter however they liked, some topping single cookies with a nutty smear, others making cookie sandwiches as a second sandwich course to follow the grilled cheese. Many dunked their cookies in glasses of milk to elevate them to even greater deliciousness.
     After consuming a few cookies at the end of the feast, even the hungriest, most sugar-enamored kids couldn’t stomach more. They all sat around the table, bellies overfull, feeling satiated and sleepy. Now that they were all silently digesting, they heard the rain again, still falling in sheets, its steady susurration lulling them deeper into contented post-meal languor.
     Myra was nearly asleep sitting up when a small voice said, “I really need to pee.”
     Grace’s pressing need roused Myra. She blinked herself awake, but as she did so, a hand came down on her shoulder. Alex was already up and standing behind her. He bent and spoke into her ear, “I’ll take her.”
     “Thanks,” Myra murmured.
     “Who else needs to go?” Alex called.
     “Me!” a half-dozen voices cried.
     He bent again and whispered in reassurance, “Back soon, sleeping beauty.” Then he led seven kids out into the pouring rain.
     Myra was left in sudden stillness, alone except for Joey, who wandered idly over toward the games and bookshelf. She shut her eyes, imagined the sharp sting of a pricked finger, a red drop of blood welling on the soft pad of her finger, falling into a deep slumber and sleeping for a hundred years in a secluded castle, until a handsome blond prince discovered her and kissed the blood from her beautiful, cold hand.
     A startled cry split the air. The scream sent Myra’s eyes flying open, in time to see Joey lose his footing a few feet off the ground as he’d attempted to climb the craggy stone wall. He careened backwards and fell to the floor, his head cracking against the floorboards.
     Myra sprang up and ran to him. He was conscious, she saw as she knelt over him, blinking up at her with soft-focused, watering eyes. “Myra, ow,” he groaned.
     She stroked his cheek with a clammy hand. “Joey,” she whispered, trying to soothe him, but her voice was shaky with horror. “Can you sit up?”
     “I’ll try,” he said, his voice quavering. Using his arms to steady and lift himself, he managed to raise himself up to sitting with Myra supporting his back.
     She watched his movements, recognized he was putting weight on both arms, and supporting himself upright. That boded well against severe limb or spinal damage, but really he could have a dozen broken bones and be in total painless shock.
     “How do you feel?” she asked softly, reaching down to hold his small hand.
     “Kinda bad,” he cringed.
     “What feels bad?” she said.
     “My head,” he answered.
     “Okay buddy, tell me if this hurts.” She raised her hands to his head and brushed aside locks of his hair to assess his injuries. She grimaced when she found a bloody patch, the scalp spongy and the hair stringy with wet blood. Joey cringed in pain but let her examine him.
     “What does it look like?” he asked with a blend of curiosity and dread that broke her heart.
     “Not so great,” she said, making a herculean effort to keep her voice light, but resorting to short sentences so she didn’t start sobbing. The blood was seeping into his hair and trickling down the back of his neck.
     “That tickles,” he said, reaching back to touch the nape of his neck.
     She caught his hand in midair, startling him. Squeezing his hand harder than she meant to, she ordered, “Don’t touch it.” He’d gotten tense and frightened; she released his hand and said more gently, “I’m going to get a towel. I’ll be right back. Just keep your hands in your lap, okay?”
     “Okay,” he whispered.
     She stood up and strode to the kitchen. There was a cabinet stocked with clean dishrags. She grabbed a handful of them and brought them back to Joey. He was sitting with his hands in his lap, but his fingers and palms were splotched with crimson blood.
     He looked guiltily down at his hands, then up at Myra. “It tickled a lot,” he confessed. “I’m sorry,” he whimpered, and for the first time, he started to cry. His shoulders shook and teardrops rolled down his cheeks.
     “It’s okay, you’re okay,” Myra repeated—a mantra to convince them both, but also to will the occurrence of a decent outcome. She mopped the dribbles of blood from his neck, but when she tried to pat his oozing wound with a towel, he howled.
     She immediately withdrew, staring in despair at his gory scalp. She knew pressure was essential to stanch the the bleeding, but it was also clearly excruciating. She scanned the room, desperately wishing she could go back in time and rectify her neglect, or barring that, hoping to find inspiration on how to handle the situation. But there was nothing, just dull dusty nature books and a shelf of children’s games, Clue and Stratego and Spy Alley…
     “Right,” she said, struck by sufficient inspiration to intervene against Joey bleeding out. “Can you lie down on your stomach, like you’re a secret agent and you’re hiding so you can listen to the enemy’s conversation?”
     Joey immediately slid to the ground, lying on his front with his forehead resting on his arms. “I’m going to figure out exactly what the bad guys are planning,” he said.
     “Yeah, you definitely are,” Myra said. “The thing is, they’ve heard rumors about what a great spy you are, and they’re on the lookout for you. So you’ve got to be as still and quiet as possible, or else they’ll notice you.”
     “Myra,” Joey chided. “I’m the best spy in the world. I think I know how to be quiet.”
     “Great,” she said. “Of course you do.”
     She knelt by his head, towel in hand. “The enemy is approaching,” she whispered conspiratorially. “Are you ready?”
     “I’m ready,” he whispered confidently.
     She lay the towel over the back of his head and steadily applied pressure. He bit his forearm to hush himself, but he didn’t make a sound.
     “The enemy has a 15-minute conference,” she whispered. “You’ll listen to the whole thing, and then when they leave, you’ll sneak out and report your new information to the CIA.”
     “Shhh,” he shushed.
     Myra glanced at her watch, and then they waited in stationary silence as the seconds ticked by. Applying pressure for awhile should stop the bleeding. Joey’s spirits seemed quick to recover, so hopefully his body would be, too.
     They’d been spying for about a minute when Alex and the kids returned. All eight of them clomped in, drenched and giggling at their dripping hair and squishing shoes. They were confused at first when then saw the deserted table, but then they spotted Myra and Joey on the floor and wandered over.
     “Why are you lying on the floor?” Percy asked, ever the pragmatist.
     “Alex?” Myra summoned.
     Alex sauntered over. “Hey, what’s up?” he said.
     “We’ve had an incident here,” she said, keeping her gaze on the back of Joey’s head. “Could you keep the kids away and entertained, start a new activity?”
     “Sure, of course,” he said. “Is this a good time for the watercolors?”
     “Yes, great,” she said.
     He was standing behind her field of view, and she thought he’d gone, but a couple seconds later, he said cautiously, “Just checking, is everything okay?”
     “What does it look like?” she said. One blood-streaked rag lay beside them, and a red spot was visible on the surface of the cloth she held to Joey’s head. Joey himself was lying on the ground, nearly drawing blood from his arm as he bit the skin to maintain his stealthy spy silence rather than cry out in pain.
     “I don’t know,” Alex said. “That’s why I’m asking.”
     “It’s under control,” she said brusquely. “Just do the watercolors.”
     “Okay,” he acquiesced, and he led the kids over to the dining table with the promise of paint.
     Myra continued pressing the cloth to Joey’s head. He lifted his mouth from his bitten arm and whispered, “That doesn’t count, right? The other kids can’t give me away to the bad guys as long as I’m quiet?”
     “No, they can’t,” Myra reassured him, rubbing his back. “The bad guys still have no idea that you’re listening in.”
    “Good,” he said. He closed his mouth around a fresh patch of skin.