Chapter 16: Hot and cold


Sunlight streamed in through the wall-to-wall windows. The bright rays highlighted the dust motes wafting through the air and made the entire room glow. Myra sighed as she stretched her arms over her head, her elbows cracking, and then she sat up in her sleeping bag. Despite the sunshine, a morning chill had permeated the mess hall, and her legs were cozy warm while her arms prickled with goosebumps.
She surveyed the floor around her. Everyone else was still asleep, the sun illuminating their faces and filtering through their hair, touching them with radiant light. They all looked angelic, but she stole a glimpse at Alex, confirming her vision of his blond hair lit up in a divine halo.
She slithered farther out of her sleeping bag, cringed at the cold, and retreated back in. If she could just warm up a bit, she could force herself to emerge from her cocoon. Blinking down at the precious insulation, she reluctantly unzipped the sleeping bag from the bottom and poked her bare feet through the opening. Keeping the puffy bag around her torso and legs, she got to her feet and shuffled over to the kitchen. She heated water in a saucepan over the stove and then went to the cupboard for a mug. But there weren’t any clean mugs; they were all still soup-encrusted inside the dishwasher that she hadn’t run last night. The drinking glasses would get unbearably hot, so she took a bowl, filled it with near-boiling water, and spooned in instant coffee. She swirled the powder around to dissolve it and then lifted the bowl to her lips. The brew was gritty and bitter, but it was hot. After a few gulps, her tongue burned and her body warmed. She stepped out of the sleeping bag and returned to the main room, the sleeping bag slung over one arm and the bowl of coffee in her other hand. She dropped the bag on the floor at the edge of the sleepers and then sat on it, using the nylon heap as a cushion but now relying on the beverage instead of the insulated tube for heat.
“Morning,” a sleepy voice mumbled. She looked over to find Alex awake now, blinking groggily up at her.
“Hey,” she said.
“Is everyone still asleep?” he asked, rolling over to survey the sleeping-bagged bodies around him.
“Yeah,” she said.
“I guess the smell of coffee only works as an alarm clock for me,” he joked.
“It’s just instant,” she said. “Coffee makers aren't a priority at a kids’ camp.”
“Even so,” he said, “I haven't had coffee in a week. Can I have a sip?”
“Sure,” she said. He sat up and she handed him the bowl.
“You really needed a hit of caffeine, huh?” he said as he took the bowl with both hands.
“The mugs are all dirty from last night,” she explained.
“I'm not complaining,” he said. He raised the bowl to his lips and gulped down its contents. He sighed with contentment and said, “Ahhh, nothing like a bowl of powdered tar dissolved in hard water to start the day off right.”
“I know it’s terrible,” Myra admitted as he took another swig. “But it's all there is. It's freezing in here and I wanted a hot drink.”
“It's nippy,” Alex agreed. He reached down to pick something up and said, “Maybe this would help?” He offered her a black bra, glancing down at her chest and then grinning up at her.
She snatched the bra from his hand and crossed her arms over her chest. She felt her nipples against her wrists, hard from the cold.
“You're welcome,” he leered.
She scowled at him. Then she dropped the bra and grabbed the hem of her t-shirt. Raising her arms, she pulled the shirt over her head. She sat shirtless, bare-chested with her nipples erect. She lifted the bowl from his hands and took another slow gulp of coffee. Choking down the now-tepid liquid, she set down the bowl and picked up the bra. She slipped the straps over her shoulders and twisted her arms behind her back to fasten the clasp. Finally she tugged her shirt back on.
She stared him down. He was wide-eyed in avid surprise.
“That’s better,” she said, her voice steady and aloof.
He cleared his throat. Finding his voice, he said, “In front of the kids, really?”
She shrugged. “So?” she said. “No one’s watching.”
“True,” he murmured.
The bowl was now completely cold. “Want more coffee?” she asked.
“I'd love some,” he said.
“Great, me too,” she said. She handed him the bowl and told him, “The pot’s on the stove and the coffee’s in the cupboard.”
He took the bowl. “Oh, I thought you--never mind.” He stood, stretched, and walked to the kitchen.
When he was out of view, she sighed and rubbed her nipples through her shirt to flatten them. She pulled back her matted curls into a lopsided ponytail and idly surveyed the kids. Luke snored gently, a ribbon of saliva traced down the corner of Aldo’s mouth, and Joey’s head bandage plastered his bangs to his forehead. Zoey’s cheek was creased with impressions from her wrinkled sleeping bag, and Caitlin’s eyelashes were encrusted with dried tears. A few strands of hair fell over Grace’s face, and they fluttered up and down as she breathed steadily through her nose. Percy was murmuring soundlessly in his sleep, and Cassie’s arm was flung across her brother’s chest in suffocating protection.
Grace’s stray hairs were levitating when Alex returned with fresh coffee. He handed her the bowl before he sat down. She sipped at the piping hot brew. It was even worse than hers. She handed it back to him.
“You're welcome,” he said.
She shot him a glancing frown and left for the kitchen. They had bread that was going stale. She cracked some eggs into a bowl, added a splash of milk and a dash of cinnamon, soaked the bread, and within a few minutes had French toast browning on the stove.
The coffee hadn't woken the kids, but the wafting aroma of breakfast food did. By the time she’d made enough for everyone, they were waiting eagerly, gathered around the table.
The kids ate with gusto through chattering teeth. After breakfast, Myra cleared the dishes and finally started the dishwasher. She left it churning away and returned to the table of contented kids. “Okay, all,” she announced, clapping her hands together. “Let’s get sleeping bags back to cabins, teeth brushed, changed out of pajamas, and then we’ll go explore the woods.”
Alex saluted and said, “Yes, ma'am.” The kids all followed along, raising hands to their foreheads and chiming strings of “yes ma'am,” “yes sir,” and Cassie’s especially inventive “yes Myra ma'am sir.”
Raising her eyebrows and leaning in conspiratorially, Myra whispered, “I bet we'll find the treehouse, too.”
The girls cheered. The boys looked to the girls for clues on what they were missing.
“What treehouse?” Joey asked.
“You'll see,” Caitlin answered smugly, taking this opportunity of unequal experience to act superior.
“Myra, what treehouse?” he whined.
“You've got to come along and see for yourself,” she said. “Let’s go, everyone. Sleeping bags, teeth, outdoor clothes.”
The kids tumbled over to the corner and collected their sleeping bags. Myra caught Joey’s arm and said, “One second, buddy.” He grudgingly stood still as she knelt beside him.
“How’s the head today?” she asked.
“Good,” he said.
“Yeah?” she said. “Think we can take off the bandage?”
“Yes,” he claimed.
She gingerly unwrapped the bandage from his head. The wound had clotted and the towel peeled away easily. Joey immediately reached up to scratch his head. “Way better,” he said.
“Awesome,” Myra said. She released him, and when he scampered off, she inspected the towel with its poker-chip-sized spot of brownish dried blood.
As Alex held the door open, the kids dragged their bedding out and over the dewy grass. Joey made it out last. Alex called to Myra, “You coming?”
“One second,” she said. She grabbed her sleeping bag and his, carried them out the door, and he let the door slam behind them. She shoved his bag into his arms and took hers back to her cabin.
The girls were getting dressed, pulling on jeans and t-shirts, lacing up sneakers. Myra tossed her sleeping bag on her bed and grabbed cleanish clothes from her duffel bag. She dressed quickly to catch up with the girls, finishing at the same time as them. She led them outside and coated them with bug spray, then did the same to the boys when they came over.
“Do me too?” Alex said, and she doused him in the chemical mist. Then he took the can from her. “Close your eyes and I'll do you,” he said. “You don't want to get bitten again.” She shut her eyes and he sprayed her.
Protected from the elements, if mosquitos counted as elements, they traipsed out. Myra led the group into the woods, from the baking yellow sun into the dappled green shadows.
The trail started out wide, the dirt worn smooth from countless footsteps. Myra was in the front of the pack, along with the eager kids who ran to keep up. The rest followed, and Alex brought up the rear with the slowpokes.
But as they plunged deeper into the woods, the trail narrowed, until they were hiking single-file with tree leaves brushing up against them on either side.
Joey kept pushing Myra ahead faster. Aldo was running his hands through the foliage, occasionally plucking leaves and rubbing their waxy surface before casting them aside.
The girls were excited, congregating together in Myra’s wake. They weren't as pushy as Joey, but their enthusiasm for their destination kept them pressing forward.
The sun was beating down upon the upper canopy of the forest, but the leaves high above them sheltered them from its direct rays, letting through only a filtered, tinted light. With the dappled greenish light rippling against her skin as the breeze rustled the leaves, Myra felt almost underwater. She traversed the ocean floor on the path that scissored between fields of ocean vegetation that proliferated on either side. Only the chirping birds shattered the watery illusion and brought her above the surface.
She was leading them along the trail where she and Alex had run two days ago, but the trek took much longer walking at a leisurely pace with eight kids in tow. They passed the pyramidal boulder, which Zoey scrambled up. She balanced on the point on one foot, her arms and free leg stretched out for balance like a starfish. Her balance was unexpectedly good, and she held the pose easily. After fifteen seconds, when she started falling significantly behind the group, Alex turned around. Walking backwards, he called back, “Onward, Zozo!”
She leapt down onto the path and ran to close the gap between Alex and her. Alex spun forward again and they continued on side by side.
They wound through the woods, their footsteps scuffling over the dry dirt and the kids’ high-pitched voices blending in with the birdsong.