Chapter 13: Role models

Later, Zoey got Myra’s attention to show off her new horses. Zoey was beaming with pride as she presented her new drawing to Myra. It was painted entirely with purple watercolors, but color aside, it was strikingly naturalistic. The neck wasn’t longer than the body, and the head was appropriately sized and well-proportioned. The horse even had a spark of personality. It tossed its head, its purple mane flowing, all in a show of dignified dynamism.
“That’s really lovely, Zoey,” Myra said. “It’s so realistic, it’s going to run right off the page.”
“I know, see?” Zoey crowed, pointing at her drawing. “Look, the legs are all the same shape.”
“They totally are,” Myra agreed.
Alex was still bent over his painting, his hair falling into his eyes, his brush skimming over the paper. Zoey nudged his free arm and said, “Show Myra your drawing.”
“One minute, Zozo,” he murmured.
Zoey refrained from prodding him more, but she leaned way in to watch Alex paint. Myra craned her neck to catch a glimpse of his work, but she couldn’t see anything from across the table like this, not with Zoey’s head getting in the way.
After his big win, Luke didn’t press Myra to play again. She waited idly, acting nonchalant but feeling restless with anticipation.
Alex finished after a couple of minutes. He set down his paintbrush with a flourish.
“Ooh,” Zoey admired.
He looked at Myra, his expression uncharacteristically serious. “Ready?” he asked.
She shrugged, but he raised her eyebrows expectantly, so she said, “Sure.”
He slid his fingers under the paper’s edges and held it up for her to see.
His horse was very similar to Zoey’s, the same composition but with even more elegance and character. She’d obviously been imitating him with good results, but his original far surpassed her copy.
While the horse was grand, its rider was the true star. The female figure rode bareback, her legs hugging the horse’s sides and her torso leaning forward, her prowess propelling the horse swiftly ahead. Her hair streamed out behind her just as the horse’s mane did, their unrelenting speed suspending her curls in midair. Her whole body was tense and purposeful, her knees bent and her neck extending forward. The horse’s cascading mane tickled her face as her head got close to its perked ears, as if she were whispering words of encouragement and endurance.
When Myra looked up, she found Alex watching her intently. The kids were all still staring at his painting, exchanging expressions of admiration and wonder, but he was fixed on her.
Her tongue was sticking to the roof of her mouth. “I like it,” she said.
He finally looked away from her to study his own art. “She’s so strong,” he said, staring at the rider he’d depicted with only a few fluid lines. “Don’t you think? She’s like Athena.” He looked back to Myra. “Like an actual goddess,” he said, his gaze so intense she worried he’d light her skin on fire with eyes like twin magnifying glasses focusing the sun.
She blushed and swallowed.
“That’s who I want to be when I grow up,” Cassie announced.
“Me too,” said Caitlin.
“Me three,” said Aldo.
Myra turned away to avoid bursting into flames. She glanced out the window and caught sight of faint tendrils of sunshine poking through the thinning clouds.
Grasping at the yellow light, she said, “Who wants to go outside?”
“Meee!” the kids all cried.
Rigorously avoiding Alex’s gaze, she stood up. The kids all charged to the door and then turned back, eagerly waiting for her. She walked over to the window, peering out at the soaked grass.
“This is going to be so fun,” she said. “We’re all going to go outside barefoot.”
“Why?” Cassie said.
“Well, it was so rainy that there’s going to be tons of mud.” Myra unlaced her sneakers and slipped them off. “And the best way to experience mud,” she said, “is to feel it between your toes.” Standing barefoot, the cold floorboards pressing against the soles of her feet, she said “How does that sound?”
“It sounds kinda fun,” Cassie said.
“Great, let’s go,” Myra said. She held the door open as the kids kicked off their shoes and then paraded outside.
Alex went out ninth, after all the kids. Myra held the door for him, but he stopped on the threshold. “Hey,” he said softly, and when she kept her gaze averted, he ghosted his toes over the top of her foot. She looked up. “You’re the cleverest,” he said.
“Hm,” she said noncommittally, watching him watching her.
“So forward-thinking,” he went on.
She shook her head slowly. “They’ll all be covered in mud anyway,” she said.
“Will they?” he said.
“Are you going out?” she prodded.
He stepped over the threshold and stood on the doorstep, turned back toward her. “Messy is fun,” he said. “Messy is natural.”
She stepped outside and let the door swing shut behind her.
“Sure,” she said. “But someone always has to clean up.”

The kids were ankle-deep in mud, shin-deep in puddles. Myra waded in, feeling the cold mud squelching between her toes. The kids shrieked with laughter as they reveled in the sense of reckless immersion in the natural world. Worms were wiggling out of the soggy earth, their pink bodies gleaming. Percy crouched down and plucked one up. He held the fleshy squiggle of a creature on the palm of his hand and peered at it. After a few moments of careful inspection, he bent again and gently deposited the worm back onto the ground.
Caitlin started splashing more vigorously, and then Cassie experimented with sliding on the slick ground, discovering the mud equivalent of an ice rink. Soon Caitlin and Zoey were trying it out too, and then the boys took interest. Unsurprisingly, mud was substantially less slippery than ice, but friction was reduced enough that Myra was displeased when she saw Joey attempting this new activity.
“Hey Joey,” she called.
Joey pretended not to hear her the first time. But she called again and waved him over, and he slid grudgingly over, the towel on his head swaying from side to side as he moved. “Yeah?” he said.
“Buddy,” she said, squatting down precariously so she could be at eye-level with him. Touching his arm, she said, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine…” he wheedled.
“Yeah?” she questioned. “What does your head feel like?”
He contemplated, touching the gauze on the back of his head. “You know when you want to eat an apple, so you take the last one from the fruit bowl, but then you kind of try to juggle it and you accidentally drop it? And then it still looks normal, but you can feel a squishy spot that you know will taste weird? But you still really feel like eating an apple, and there aren’t any undropped ones left? So you eat it and it tastes good except you accidentally eat the smushed spot that you were going to avoid? And it tastes yucky like you knew it would? But you still don’t regret eating the apple because the rest of it was really sweet and juicy like you wanted?”
Myra stared at Joey’s earnest face as he waited expectantly for an answer.
She thought for a moment and then said, “Yes.”
He nodded. “My head feels like that,” he said.
She felt both reassured and disturbed. Joey was obviously alert and articulate. His gaze was focused and his balance was fine. “Does anything else feel weird?” she asked. “Do you feel nauseous, or tired, or confused?”

“Well, kind of,” he said.
Her pulse thudded and she took his small hand in hers.
He wriggled his hand out of her grasp and continued, “I’m confused why you’re asking me this stuff and being so weird. You’re making me nervous.”
“Oh, Joey,” she murmured, instinctively reaching out to touch him again, but stopping herself. “I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
His eyes scrunched up in a wary grimace.
She leaned in close to him, undeterred by his distrust, and said, “I’m so happy that you seem fine. And I don’t want you to feel nervous. But I want you to understand that you could have really hurt yourself.”
He was still frowning but still listening, however reluctantly.
She shook her head, feeling nauseous and tired and confused as she thought of his cracked skull and watched his innocent unscathed frowning face. As the distress bubbled up, she suddenly accosted, “What were you thinking? Climbing the wall like that was unsafe and foolish. You’ve never done that before, I know you’re smarter than that.”
His pout contorted his entire face. “Why are you being so mean?” he whispered.
She sighed and murmured, “Why were you climbing like that?”
He shrugged.
“Because it looked fun?” she pressed. “Because you were bored?”
“I guess,” he said. “It’s not fair,” he grumbled. “Alex did it first.”
Myra froze. “Alex was climbing?” she said.
Joey nodded vigorously, as if the force of his head motion could shift blame off of himself.
“When? Multiple times?” she asked.
“I saw him one time,” Joey said. “When you were making lunch today in the kitchen.”
“Really,” she breathed.
“Yeah,” Joey said emphatically. “He got way higher than me, like super far above the ground. But then he jumped down, he didn’t fall like me.”
Myra wanted to scream, but instead she said very calmly, “Did he pressure you to try climbing?”
“Well…no…” said Joey, apparently hesitating out of concern that admitting this would weaken his defense. “But he was like Spiderman. I wanted to be like Spiderman too.”
“Okay,” she said. “And what do you think now?”
“It was way harder than Alex made it look,” Joey reflected. “So I guess I still want to be like Superman, but I wouldn’t try climbing the wall again because I’m not so good at it.”
“All right,” she conceded. “But it’s not about how good you are, buddy. It’s about your well-being.” She fought the urge to push his messy bangs back from his forehead. “Can you promise me not to blindly copy Alex, even if what he’s doing looks cool? Can you treat your body well?”
“I probably could,” he said.
“Yeah, you think so?” she encouraged.
“Yeah,” he said more confidently. “I like my body, I don’t want it to get mushy and bleed.”
“Great,” she declared. “So when you go back to playing with everyone, what choices are you going to make?”
“I’m going to move not too fast,” he said. “And take little steps. Because it’s really slippery and I could fall and die.”
Although Joey didn’t display a perfect understanding of risk magnitudes, Myra said, “Sounds good, bud. Let’s play.”