Chapter 17: A stone's throw

Another new sound bubbled up, increasing as they traveled forward, a tinkling murmur like a fairy language. As they rounded another curve they came upon the source: the small stream that looped through the woods, water droplets tumbling down a tiny waterfall and pinging against smooth stones, then emitting a wet sigh as the drops coalesced and swished forward.
The stream brought everyone to an enthralled halt.
“Can we swim?” Grace asked Myra.
“Pleeease?” Zoey seconded.
“Sure,” Myra said. “We’d have to be tadpoles to actually swim, but we can splash around.”
Alex grinned at Myra. Then he announced, “You heard the lady! Shoes off, feet in!”
They all kicked off their sneakers and peeled off their socks. Alex stepped in first and then reported back, “Come on in, the water’s warm!”
The kids waded in. Myra joined them. The water barely submerged her feet, it was so shallow. She was up to her ankles and the kids were up to their shins.
The water was so clear and shallow that she could see straight down to the smooth pebbles that comprised the stream bed. Caitlin spotted them too, and she crouched down to retrieve handfuls of worn stones. Myra watched Joey bend down to do the same, but he sat back too far and dipped his rear in the water. He looked up sharply at the feeling of his submerged bottom, but he only looked around at eye level, missing Myra’s quiet smirk as she stood above him. Alex and the rest of the kids were preoccupied with themselves, so Joey returned to his activities, unaware of the one existing witness.
Rock-collecting became a popular pursuit, seeing as swimming was impossible and there was really nothing except water and rocks. But each collector had different criteria. Joey kept a single large rock in his hand and plopped it down into the water each time he found a larger specimen. Luke held onto a few stones, looking for the roundest ones. Caitlin was ending up with both hands full, as every time she came upon an appealing new stone, she added it to her collection without ever discarding previous selections. Myra liked the blends, unlikely fusions, like the stripy sandstone’s Martian layers of rust-red and dust-beige, or the reddish granite with its dark shiny specks of mica.
Alex picked through the geologic offerings, working his way over to her. She sped up her search to keep her distance, but once she started gaining distance, he just stopped looking at the rocks and walked straight over.
Except he walked past her and over to Caitlin.
“Hey Caitybug,” he said. “Have you ever skipped stones before?”
Caitlin looked up from the water, her cupped hands barely containing her loot. “Nope,” she said.
Alex had a handful of flat rocks. He held one in his free hand and angled it parallel to the surface. With a flick of his wrist, he released the rock. It rebounded off the water in three consecutive neat arcs, leaving three round splash marks, the third mark swallowing the rock like an arcade machine repossessing a pinball at the end of a game.
Caitlin stared at the three round ripples, which faded in the order they formed.
“Wanna try?” Alex said, offering Caitlin one of his rocks.
She let go of all of the rocks in her right hand. The discards plummeted down into the water like hail, raising a shower of splashes and their own field of rippling rings. Alex set the flat stone into her outstretched hand, and her fingers curled around it.
He moved another good stone from his left hand to his right to demonstrate. “Hold it flat, with your index finger curled around the edge,” he instructed. They both adjusted accordingly. “Angle your body and your feet like you’re going to do a cartwheel.” He repositioned, then tipped forward on one foot as he pretended to cartwheel. She giggled and got into position too.
“The rest is in the wrist,” he explained. “Flick your wrist forward as fast as possible. Give it a little spin, a little downward force. And let go.” He performed the advice and sent his rock hurtling out and down to the water. It hopped forward four times and sank with a splash.
Furrowing her face in concentration, staring down at her small hand gripping the rock like a grenade, Caitlin curled her wrist inward, then whipped it outward. The rock careened forward in a manic arc and plunked straight into the water.
“Aw,” she groaned, frowning at the single set of concentric rings that radiated out from the impact point.
“No worries,” Alex said. “It takes years of summers to become an expert stone-skipper. Give it a decade and you’ll be a master.”
“Yeah,” she sighed.
“Or really, maybe like three more tries,” he said. “You just need to get a feel for it.”
“Yeah?” she said, brightening.
“For sure,” he said. He passed her another flat rock. He repeated the steps and she followed his advice intently. This time the stone ricocheted off the water once and sank on the second hit.
“Yeah!” she exclaimed. “I did it!”
“Sweet skipping, Caity,” he said. He held up his open palm and she slapped it, their high-five connecting with a sharp smack.
Caitlin’s success drew others into eager attempts. Their stones rained into the stream. Its surface became pockmarked with colliding shockwaves. Several kids pulled off a skip or two, but not more than that. Every few minutes Alex let loose another stone, easily attaining three, four, even five skips. These impressive intermittent shows kept the kids motivated to keep trying while also keeping Alex’s ego stoked. Once Aldo let out a howl when someone’s poorly aimed stone pinged against the back of his head, but afterward he adamantly told Myra he was fine. His involuntarily teary eyes suggested otherwise, but he immediately returned to his skipping, so she let it go.
Myra stayed out of the game herself. She watched over the action, occasionally glancing down and spotting a desirable new addition to her modest handful of eclectic heterogeneous rocks. But despite her purposeful self-sidelining, after a while Alex straightened up from a rock-replenishing mission and extended an offering to her. “Here, try one,” he said. “It’s perfect.”
She took the black rock from him and felt it in her hand. It was approximately triangular, heftier than most of the others, flat on one side and gently convex on the other. She rested her index finger around one of its three points. Standing still with the water lapping at her ankles, the sun beating down on her shoulders, and the cool stone nestled in her hand, she recalled the million previous occasions when she’d skipped stones.
She snapped her wrist. The stone rocketed forward. It skipped seven times, practically bouncing. Each arc was slightly shallower than the last, until at last the stone slipped under the surface with a tiny plop.
Everyone was mutely transfixed on the trail of circles blooming where the stone had skipped in a straight line down the stream.
“Woah,” Caitlin breathed.
“See, I told you it was perfect,” Alex said. But underneath his confident bravado, his voice betrayed a quavering trace of insecurity.
“Lucky break,” Myra said.
He laughed. “Beginner’s luck?” he said quietly.
“That’s it,” she said.
“Well, let’s not spoil it,” he declared. “Everyone ready to move on?”
“Yes,” came a string of kids’ replies. They all waded agreeably toward the shore, but suddenly Caitlin yelped in pain and toppled down. She landed on her bottom in the stream, instantly soaked up to her waist.
“Myra!” she wailed.
Myra was at her side in a second. “What’s wrong?” she asked urgently.
“My foot,” Caitlin whimpered. She lifted it out of the water. Something long and thin was embedded in the sole of her foot. It looked like a puncture wound, like a giant needle had stabbed her.
Myra grimaced. “Everyone out!” she called, even though they were all either already out or well on their way. “Alex, watch them,” she said without even looking at him. She vaguely heard his assent, but she was already focusing her full attention on Caitlin. She knelt in the water and gently held Caitlin’s foot just above the surface. She leaned in to inspect the shard that was using the girl’s foot as a pincushion. It was shiny and brownish-grey, serrated along one edge and smooth along the other.
The serration looked like a torture device, but there was only one option.
Myra plunged her hand into the water and picked up the largest stone she saw. She handed it to Caitlin and said, “When I say so, squeeze this as hard as you can.”
Myra rested Caitlin’s foot on her own knee and pressed her fingers into the sole of her foot to create a sensation that would dull the inevitable pain. “Now,” she ordered. As Caitlin clung to the rock with both hands, Myra grasped the shard with her forefinger and thumb, steeled herself, and pulled.
Caitlin let out a piercing shriek. The shard sawed its way out of her foot, and suddenly Myra had the wet fragment in her hand, its serrated edge streaked red with fresh blood.
Caitlin’s knuckles were white as she continued to squeeze the stone.
“You can let go now,” Myra told her.
“Is it out?” she said nervously.
“Yes,” Myra said.
“Oh good,” Caitlin sighed. She released the rock. It tumbled into the water with a heavy splash. Color started returning to her knuckles. “What was that?” she finally asked.
Myra inspected the fragment more closely. It almost looked ceramic, it was so smooth and shiny. But that jagged edge wasn’t pottery. It looked almost like teeth.
Looking into Caitlin’s frightened eyes, Myra held up the serrated fragment and said, “It’s a claw.” It was meant to be a weapon, although natural rather than man-made. “From a crab, maybe, or a crayfish.”
Now that the acute pain had passed, curiosity took over. Caitlin asked, “Can I hold it?”
Myra dropped the claw into Caitlin’s palm. “Careful,” she warned.
Caitlin raised her palm up to eye level and studied the jagged, crimson-stained edge. “Gross,” she said, fascinated.
“Okay Caitlin, I'm going to carry you out, all right?” Myra said.
“Okay,” Caitlin said. Myra tossed the claw back into the water a safe distance away, and then used her free hands to lift Caitlin up. She cradled the girl, Caitlin’s knees draped over her arms and her head resting against her shoulder.
Myra stepped out of the stream and set Caitlin down on the grass. “How does your foot feel?” she asked. “Can you stand?”
“I think so,” Caitlin said. She looked unhappily down at the red line on the bottom of her foot. “I don't like it,” she said.
“I know,” Myra said. “I'm sorry I don't have a band-aid.” She passed Caitlin her sneakers, the socks stuffed into them, and said, “Try to walk?”
Caitlin put one sock over her unharmed foot, eased the other over her injured foot, and slid her feet into her shoes. Myra helped her to stand. She took a few cautious steps, slow at first and then picking up speed. Within a few seconds, she was galloping over to rejoin the rest of the group kept entertained by Alex with an acted-out story.
Myra jogged over and asked, “All good?”
Caitlin gave her a thumbs-up.
“All right folks,” Alex said. “Our guests of honor have arrived. Lead us on, Caitybug!”
Caitlin giggled. She squeezed Myra’s hand and pulled her toward the front of the group. The two of them led the march deeper into the woods, drawing ever closer to the treehouse. Caitlin’s hand was hot in Myra’s, her grip damp from the heat and tight with a child’s confidence and need. They pushed ahead together.