Chapter 14: Mudslinging

Joey oozed over the mud in slow motion. He headed toward Percy, who was sitting on the ground, gathering handfuls of mud into sticky mounds.
Alex was leading a group of kids in what looked like a puddle version of hopscotch. He jumped across a flooded area on one foot, then the other foot, then both feet together, sending out a spray of gritty water with each hop. The kids followed suit, initially one at a time, but this quickly devolved into a mass of simultaneously jumping children. Laughing with abandon and squinting their eyes in protection from the flurry of splashes, they collectively stirred up the water with their fitful leaps.
Myra turned away and sank down on the ground next to Percy and Joey. The wetness instantly soaked through the seat of her pants, but she remained sitting, tolerating the soggy violation.
“What are you making?” she asked.
Patting a mud mound smooth, Percy said, “A village.”
Except every time he finally arranged a mound to his satisfaction, it sagged into a shallow blob. The close-set mounds bled into each other, creating a bumpy neighborhood of peaks and valleys.
“We should make a maze,” Joey said.
Myra expected Percy, who typically demanded such a high level of control and exactitude, to be upset with Joey’s suggestion. But instead Percy looked up in wonder at Joey, and the two boys exchanged a spark of shared excitement before they dove into construction. They eagerly scooped mud, grime caking their fingernails, coating their hands, and spattering up their forearms. Within a few minutes, they had already renovated Percy’s mounds into an early blueprint of a maze. Myra watched in awe at Percy’s tolerance, Joey’s focus, their cooperative efforts.
The boys reinforced their existing walls and expanded them outward until they had an extensive topographical labyrinth. They completed the finishing touches, running their hands lightly over the surface of the walls to smooth out the lumps, and then sat back on their heels to inspect their work.
“Is it done?” Joey asked.
“Yes,” said Percy. “Now it’s ready to be solved.”
He crawled a few feet away, lifted worms with his index finger and thumb, and collected them in his palm. He sidled back with a handful of gently writhing flesh. Myra and Joey looked on as he strategically placed the creatures throughout the maze, their squirms abating as they snuggled back into the soil. All three of them watched the worms, whose damp skin glistened as crumbs of dirt clung to their translucently pink bodies. The worms lay sprawled along the corridors of the maze, performing a slow, undulating dance that was the opposite of solving the maze, yet equally hypnotic.
As they sat mesmerized, Alex approached, his footsteps squelching. The three were sitting in a wide triangle with the maze filling its center, and he walked directly into the center. They all gasped as he stood on top of the maze, his feet sinking into the raised walls and mashing the worms deep into the mud. Myra gasped, Percy whimpered, and Joey let out a strangled cry.
“Hey guys,” Alex said. “Nice weather we’re having, huh?”
“Move,” Myra whispered. She found her voice and shouted, “Move!”
“What?” Alex said, oblivious. He shifted his weight, unwittingly crushing a new swath of territory.
Joey sprang to his feet, took two meticulous steps on uninhabited land, and shoved his hands into Alex’s stomach. Even though Joey attempted to physically overpower Alex, it was mild confusion rather than brawn that overcame him. Alex took a few bumbling steps back in surprise, eliciting a collective sigh of relief.
He looked down at the ground. To an untrained eye it would look like basically nothing, but the maze was severely damaged and the worms were embedded, motionless, in the mud.
“What’s up?” Alex asked, disconcerted but still cheerful.
Percy’s lower lip quivered and a tear wobbled down his cheek. He raked the soil to loosen it and free the entombed worms, then sprinkled more dirt over them as extra protection.
There was a long silence, and Alex asked uncertainly, “What, did I do something?”
Suddenly Joey exclaimed, “You stepped on the worms!”
Alex glanced down at the worms, now mostly covered, but still visible in glimpses as they wiggled through the crumbled soil. “Oh yeah, cool,” he said nonchalantly. “Anyway, I was thinking, it’s really clearing up. No more lightning, I think, so I’ll take a group down to the lake?”
Myra stared down at the wreckage. “Fine, go,” she said hollowly.
“Great, thanks,” he said, and he left.  
“I’m sorry,” Myra murmured, to the boys and the worms. Joey voluntarily held Myra’s hand, and the three gathered with their heads bowed in a moment of silence.
After their mourning period, Percy and Joey wanted to join the others at the lake, so Myra went down with them. No one had their suits on, but they were already so soggy from playing in the mud and puddles that they all just waded, and even swam, in their clothes. It was a chilly afternoon. That yellow light never materialized; instead, a hazy gray curtain of benign clouds hung over the sky for the remainder of the day. The clouds created an artificially early twilight, and when the kids started getting uneasy in the dusky dimness, they all went back up to camp.
They took hot showers to steam away the dirt and damp they’d accrued. Myra and the girls stood together in the group shower, the scorching water beating down on their backs and steam-cleaning their skin. They emerged with squeaky clean bodies, dripping hair, and pruny fingertips.
Everyone wore their pajamas to dinner and carried their bedding to the mess hall. They curled up in their sleeping bags on the floor and ate minestrone soup out of mugs. A sleepy mood enveloped the group as the sensations of cleanliness, satiation, and warmth wove together into a cozy blanket of satisfaction. Kids started falling asleep once they’d finished their dinner. Soon the floor was covered in swaddled sleeping bodies. Even Alex nodded off.
Myra wriggled out of her sleeping bag and moved the dirty dishes from the floor to the kitchen. She didn’t need a mug to break and someone to roll over shards of ceramic in their sleep. She loaded the dishwasher and was about to start it, but she stopped with her finger over the button. The machine was so loud, it would wake everyone if she ran it now. The dishes could wait until tomorrow morning.
She went back to the main room and stood looking onto the corner populated by sleeping children. Their limbs were tucked inside their bags, and only their heads emerged, hair mussed and eyes closed. Their cylindrical forms sprawled like worms across the floor. She gazed at their peaceful faces, their eyelashes casting wispy shadows on their cheeks, their lips parted as their mouths took in slow, even breaths and then sighed them out.
She weaved her way through the maze of bodies, careful not to step on anyone, and came to a halt in front of Alex. He lay on his side with his hand underneath his head, his palm smooshing one cheek.
She prodded his abdomen with her foot. He stirred in his sleep but then fell back into stillness. She kicked him harder in the gut. He grunted and curled into a stomach-shielding fetal position. She continued poking at his belly with her toes. At last he rolled halfway onto his back and looked up at the source of this bodily invasion. “Myra?” he groaned.
“Wake yourself up and meet me on the dock,” she hissed. She kicked him once more for good measure, then went outside into the night. The air was still damp, and the combination of humidity and sunlessness chilled her. Rubbing at her arms to subdue the goosebumps, she walked down to the lake. She stood on the dock and watched the cold moonlight reflect off of the subtly rippling water like silver slivers.