Chapter 8: Confrontation

She’d been waiting on the dock for nearly ten minutes when Alex finally arrived. She lifted her feet out of the warm water and stood, knowing she was forming wet footprints on the dock but unable to see them in the low light.
“What took you so long?” she asked.
“Wow, you’re eager to talk after all,” he said, casting his shoes aside. “The boys took a little while to get settled. They’re not perfect little angels like your girls.”
“The girls aren’t perfect,” Myra answered with instinctive contradiction. “But I trust them to fall asleep on their own.”
“It’s funny you say that,” he said. He sank down to sit on the edge of the dock, where she’d been sitting moments before. “I’ve been thinking about trust, and responsibility. These aren’t little kids, you know.”
She stood, shifting her weight from one foot to the other on the dock.
“Come on, sit with me,” he said.
She lowered herself down, next to him but with a prudent expanse of dock between them. “Go on,” she said. “What are we trusting these mature kids to do?”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “But you baby them.”
Her cheeks got hot. “I keep them safe,” she accused.
He reached for her hand. She jumped when he touched her suddenly in the dark.
“See, I knew you’d be angry,” he said. He wrapped his large hand around hers, massaged her palms with his fingers. “I know what you think you saw.” He interwove his fingers through hers and squeezed her hand. “But you didn’t.”
His grip was making her hand tingle. “Yeah?” she challenged, squeezing back. “And how am I so wrong?”
He sighed and his grip slackened. “Cassie was getting tired. I knew she was,” he admitted. “But you know how headstrong she is. I didn’t want to embarrass or belittle her. She has better endurance than I do, probably, and I knew she was fine.” His thumb traced along the side of her index finger. “Should I have treated her like a weak, helpless baby? Acted like she’d die without me?”
Myra swallowed. “You don’t know,” she said. “You can’t guess at how well a kid can survive, because if you’re wrong, then yes, they’ll die.” She blinked but repeated each word. “They. Will. Die.”
Alex’s hand was a warm, motionless glove around her hand. “Wow,” he said softly. “That’s dark.” His feet stirred the surface of the water. The drops he disturbed made faint dripping sounds. He asked, “Do you see anything besides death?”
She finally pulled her hand away, slid off the heavy glove that she refused to wear any longer. “I can’t believe you,” she hissed, crossing her arms.
“No?” he said, unperturbed. The water sloshed below them. “That’s it,” he said. “I was upholding her dignity. I was respecting her strength. And when her strength became not enough, I was ready to step in.”
“Were you?” she asked. She withdrew her feet from the water, pulled her legs up onto the dock, and sat cross-legged facing him. Her wet feet were pressing against her thighs and soaking her jeans. She could see the outline of his jaw, and she reached out and laid her hand on his cheek. With her thumb, she stroked the tender skin below his eye. He held still, barely breathing. She could feel the air from his shallow exhales tickling her wrist. She let her thumb drift higher to skim his lower eyelashes, and she murmured, “Keep stepping in.”
The cabin was silent when she entered. The girls were all asleep, their lumps of bodies peacefully nestled inside their shapeless sleeping bags. Myra curled into her own bag, feeling for the familiar torn seam and worrying it with a hooked finger.
She kept getting too hot, and then too cold, zipping and unzipping her sleeping bag in a restless attempt to achieve a comfortable temperature. Yet her efforts were futile, and her body became only more confused, her arms peppered with goosebumps but her forehead damp with sweat. She tossed and turned in her squeaky narrow bed, continually flipping her pillow to find the cool side, using up the coolness so fast that the reverse side was still warm when she flipped it back.
Her throat was feeling scratchy, but she was feeling chilled again, so she willed her urge to cough to abate so she wouldn’t be forced to leave her sleeping bag to get a drink of water. Her mental control proved to be inadequate when a small, dry cough escaped her. This escalated into a series of coughs that scuffled out into the quiet cabin, muffled by her sleeping bag as she buried her head under the covers, but hanging stubbornly in the air like a sonic itch.
“Myra?” a voice threaded through the darkness.
“Cassie, is that you?” she asked.
“Myra, are you okay?” After a brief scuffle, Cassie’s body emerged from her sleeping bag. She scampered over to the table, then to Myra, handing her a plastic water bottle. Myra sat up, unscrewed the top, and gulped down its tepid contents. Replacing the cap and wiping water from her mouth, Myra whispered, “Thank you, Cassie.”
“You’re welcome,” Cassie whispered back.
Instead of returning to her own bed, Cassie felt along the wide, partially unzipped opening of Myra’s sleeping bag. Locating a gap, she sidled into the empty space. Already snug against Myra’s side, Cassie mumbled, “Can I sleep with you tonight?”
“Of course you can, sweetie,” Myra said, stroking Cassie’s hair. Cassie hummed an assent, pressing up close against Myra’s warm body and quickly drifting off again.
Myra lay very still, feeling Cassie’s radiant heat and the expansion and contraction of her chest as she breathed. Thinking of Grace’s barn owl, Myra decided to count owls to put herself to sleep. On every inhale, she pictured an owl and lost herself in its round, pure black eyes. On every exhale, the owl took flight, wheeling off through the sky in her imagination and disappearing into nothingness. On the following inhale, a new owl materialized, and she gazed into a fresh pair of inky eyes. Each owl had slightly larger eyes than the previous one. As the eyes expanded, they overtook the owls themselves, becoming gaping sockets, then massive sliding disks, and finally circular currents swirling through a solid black surface, tracing out circles like liquid halos.