Chapter 19: Mending and messengers

“Ohhh…owww,” Percy groaned in a low, strangled burble from underneath Cassie.
Myra arrived at their side and crouched next to them.
“Cassie?” she murmured, laying her hand on the girl’s back. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” Cassie moaned.
“Can you move?” Myra asked.
Myra felt Cassie’s back muscles flex under her hand. Cassie said, “I’d rather not.”
“Okay,” Myra said. “I’m going to lift you up.” She worked her hands between Cassie and Percy, trying to lift with her legs rather than her back. She raised Cassie slightly up and then pivoted to set her down on the grass next to her brother. Cassie was obviously sore, but within a few moments she tentatively sat up.
Percy wasn’t moving. Blood was trickling from his nose, and his limbs were splayed out at weird angles. Myra touched his cheek and his eyes squinted open.
“Hey, Perce,” she murmured, stroking his hair. “Can you hear me?”
He blinked up at her. “You’re talking kinda quiet,” he mumbled. “But I’ve good hearing. Like a bat.” He emitted a high-pitched squeak, and a slaphappy smile spread across his face. “That was my echolocation,” he giggled.
Myra let out a choked laugh. She didn’t know if Percy had suffered brain damage or if he was just being his usual strange self. “What about your arms and legs? Do they feel more like … a jellyfish or an elephant?”
“Ummm…” Percy thought. “Maybe like a porcupine?”
“And why is that?” Myra probed.
“They feel sort of prickly,” Percy said. “Like the porcupine quills are poking into them.”
“Does it hurt?” Myra asked anxiously.
“I’m not sure,” Percy said. “It’s tingly.”
She gingerly held his curled fingers. “Can you feel your hands?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Your hand is making my arm extra tingly.”
She repeated the test on each of his limbs, and he felt each one. Next she asked him to try moving them, and he managed to wiggle his fingers and flop his ankles.
“Great, that’s really great, Perce,” Myra said. “Does anything else hurt? Or tingle?”
“No,” he said. A moment later, he added, “But my face tickles.”
Fresh droplets of blood were sliding along red trails down his cheeks and chin. Myra used the back of her hand to wipe them away.
“That’s better,” Percy sighed.
Cassie crawled over to sit by her brother’s head. She appeared unscathed except for some scratches marking her face and arms. She cradled his head and petted his forehead. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” she tearfully told him.
“I was trying to save you,” he said fervently. “And I did.”
“You did,” she repeated. “I’ll always remember you.” She bent to kiss his blood-streaked cheek.
“Goodbye, sissy,” he whispered dramatically.
“Bye, brother,” she said woefully.
Myra realized that everyone else was huddled behind them, looking on with wide-eyed alarm. “Bye, Percy!” Caitlin called, spurring a flurry of goodbye calls and waves.
“Hey, hey!” Myra called. “Percy isn’t going anywhere. There is no need to say goodbye,” she said firmly.
“Are you sure?” Grace said, eyeing Percy’s mangled, bloodied form.
“Positive,” Myra declared. “Let’s just get out of here and back to camp. We’ve had enough adventure for one day.”
She positioned herself next to Percy to pick him up, but Alex held her shoulder and said, “I can carry him.”
Myra wheeled to face him. Acutely aware that every kid was watching them, she said, “No, I’ll do it.”
“You know I’m stronger,” he said, flexing his biceps.
“Absolutely not,” she hissed.
“Why not?” he pressed. “Are you afraid I’ll drop him?”
As she caught the humor crinkling his eyes and lifting the corners of his mouth, disgust rose in her chest like bile. She snarled, “Don’t even joke about that.”
He mock-pouted. “So serious,” he whispered. “Fine, go ahead,” he proclaimed, extending his arm in a theatrical gesture toward Percy.
Scowling, she knelt, wriggled her arms under Percy’s knees and shoulders, and carefully lifted him as she stood.
Cassie easily got to her feet and walked alongside Myra. “I’m right here, Percy,” she reassured him. He let out another echolocation squeak. She squeaked back.
They trekked out of the woods, slower than they’d come in. The sun was still high, but the sunlight that filtered through the canopy felt cold on Myra’s skin. Alex led, the kids trailed behind him, and Cassie and Myra took up the rear, Percy lolling against Myra’s chest. It was like a funeral procession.
But the openness once they got out of the woods was almost worse. Myra felt vulnerable without the trees on either side of her. She held Percy closer to her as she headed toward the boys’ cabin. Alex held the door open for her. As she stepped into the cool, dark room, Alex followed her in and said, “He’s got a top bunk. Set him on my bed.”
Myra passed the bunks and laid Percy on the rumpled sleeping bag covering Alex’s mattress.
Cassie was right behind her, but when Joey tried to slip into the cabin after her, Myra said, “Keep them out, Alex, please.” Alex herded Joey and the rest of the kids away from the door and back outside.
As Cassie hovered anxiously by the bed, Myra bent over Percy, smoothed back his hair, and said, “Can you give me a status update?”
He flexed his quads, his skinny thighs rippling under his jersey shorts. “My legs are barely tingling any more,” he said.
“That’s terrific,” she said.
“Whew,” he sighed, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead in an exaggerated show of relief. “Glad that’s over with.” Moving to hop off the bed, he said, “So, lunch?”
Myra caught his shoulders. “Whoa there,” she said. “Let’s take it slow. Remember, not so long ago you had severe porcupine legs.”
“I did,” he admitted wistfully. Perking up, he asked, “So will you bring me lunch in bed?”
She smiled. “Definitely.”
Cassie threw herself down on the bed beside Percy, flung her arm over his shoulders, and said, “Me too!”
“Sounds good,” Myra said. “Keep an eye on your brother. I’ll be back in a minute.”
She met up with Alex outside. The other kids had taken up a restrained game of soccer with the old volleyball that they’d left by the sandy court. When she came to stand next to him on the sidelines, he said, “Want me to go in and watch Percy?”
“No,” she said. “Go make lunch, would you.” Her words weren’t a question, but rather like an order directed at a poorly behaved dog.
“Oh come on,” he resisted. Leaning in toward her glaring face, he lilted, “You know my cooking isn’t half as good as yours.”
Keeping her eyes on the game, watching the decrepit gray ball tumble across the grass, Myra said, “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the cooking. Just make some goddamn lunch, you fucking piece of shit.”
He cleared his throat. “Ah—all right,” he said, and he strode off to the mess hall.
She waited a few seconds until he was out of earshot, and then she heaved a sigh. She wanted to give Percy downtime to rest, but she didn’t want to leave anyone unsupervised with Alex. She envisioned the cramped cabin, tried to figure out how it could seat ten. Two on each mattress, she supposed.
She called everyone over and explained that they were all going to have lunch in the boys’ cabin, but they had to use their indoor voices since Percy wasn’t feeling good. “Can everyone do that?” she asked.
“Yes,” Joey whispered loudly. They all nodded.
She led the kids into the cabin, and they paired up to find seats. Caitlin and Zoey claimed one top bunk, Aldo and Joey clambered up to another, and Luke and Grace took one of the bottom bunks. That left Myra alone with the vacant spot, so she summoned Grace to join her. Luke gave her a soulful little glance at being left alone, but Myra shot him an apologetic expression and then looked away.
Percy was sitting cross-legged on Alex’s bed, chatting with Cassie. Myra gazed at him, watching his eyes sparkle and his hands gesture out toward his sister. Cassie was watching him in the same way Myra was, tracking his life force as she admired it.
Alex tromped in carrying a platter heaped with sandwiches. He brought them around to each bed and the kids grabbed their lunches. He went around in a circle, getting to Myra and Grace last. Myra picked up a sandwich and took a bite. It was peanut butter and jelly, sticky and sweet.
“I hope it’s all right,” Alex said.
She chewed and swallowed. “It’s fine,” she said.
“Want another?” he asked, raising the platter out toward her again.
On instinct, she started to shake her head, but then she changed her mind and snatched up another sandwich.
“Enjoy,” he said. He took his spot next to Luke and started in on the small mound of remaining sandwiches.
They all chewed away, peanut butter sticking to their teeth and jelly coating their tongues. Surely the sleeping bags were being sprinkled with crumbs, but it couldn’t be helped.
Eating in the boys’ cabin instead of the mess hall was part adventure, part sickbed vigil. The kids weren’t sure how to behave. The cabin was quiet enough that they could hear leaves rustling and birds chirping outside. One bird was repeating a two-note call over and over, as if committed to sending a message with no way of knowing if it had already been received.
The bird was on its umpteenth call when Percy said, “Can I tell a story?”
Myra peeled her attention away from the avian radio. “What do you think, guys?” she said. “Up for a creative gem from our very own Percy?”
“Yes!” they chimed.
“The people have spoken,” Myra declared.
“Oh good,” Percy said. He fell immediately into a story about the messenger Aigeiros, who sprinted on foot through the curving forest paths to deliver missives.
Despite his fantastical tale, Percy’s voice was so taut and earnest that it felt like he was introducing them to an esteemed figure who was central to their own existence, as if Aigeiros was sprinting along with their own letters locked in his secure grip.
“But as Aigeiros weaved along the winding trails,” Percy said, “Lepidoptera flew overhead. She was as fast as he was, and even more efficient, since he had to run a roundabout route through the woods while she cut straight toward her destination above the treetops. But she flew empty-handed and arrived early with nothing for no reason.
“Aigeiros gave the message. Lepidoptera had been waiting for him. They both wanted to go home. Aigeiros clutched a new letter. They set off together, but Aigeiros went onward on foot while Lepidoptera took flight. They sped home, same speed, everything else different.”
Myra’s heart pounded as she imagined sprinting, the letter becoming damp with sweat in her hand, knowing she had all the responsibility with none of the advantages.
“Sucks for leopard girl,” Alex said. “She could have done it better, huh?”