Chapter 20: Bugging

For a time, the kids enjoyed their unusual whole-group afternoon foray into the boys’ cabin. But eventually they grew antsy. Wriggling on the bed,  Aldo said, “Myra, could we go swimming?”
Cheers of “Yeah!” rose up.
“All right,” Myra conceded.
She wanted to stay and help Percy put on his bathing suit, but the boys were just old enough that they were getting shy changing around females. She followed the girls out of the boys’ cabin, glaring at Alex on the way out and hissing, “Watch him,” an order and a threat.
Myra and the girls returned to their own cabin and changed into their suits. After nearly a week of camp, the stretchy fabric had absorbed the damp, protozoan smell of the lake.
They met up with the boys near the volleyball court and walked down the hill to the lake together, padding through the grass on bare feet as the glimmering lake grew closer and closer. Myra passed around tubes of sunscreen and the kids obligingly coated themselves and each other in the sticky white lotion, streaking their faces white and rubbing in haphazard globs on their friends’ backs.
Cassie galloped over to Percy and stayed by his side the whole way. He was sandwiched between his sister and Myra. He tolerated them each holding one of his hands as they walked, but he pulled away once they reached the beach.
“Hey Perce,” Myra said, kneeling down to be at eye-level with him. He stared steadily back at her. “I really think it’s best if you hold off on swimming for today,” she ventured.
His stare grew stonier.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But it’s to keep you safe.”
“But I’m back to normal,” he insisted. Waving his arms out, nearly whacking Cassie, he said, “Look. They’re not even tingly anymore.”
“I know, and I’m so glad,” she said. “We’ve just got to keep them that way, in mint condition.”
Percy was starting to protest again when Alex dropped to his knees next to Myra and said, “Hey bud. Do it for Myra’s sake. How will she sell you back to your parents if she lets you get damaged?”
Percy’s eyes widened. “I want them to buy me back, for sure,” he said. He turned to Cassie, and she nodded vigorously in agreement.
“That’s right,” Alex said, patting Percy’s shoulder. “I’ll watch out for you on the beach here, keep you in parent-worthy condition.” He turned to Myra, a half-smile playing across his face. Tipping his head sideways toward the water, he said quietly, “Go on. Everyone else is waiting to swim.”
Myra scrutinized Alex’s amiable expression, Percy’s dead serious face as he wrapped his arms around Alex’s elbow, and Cassie’s protective loyalty as she threw her arm across her brother’s shoulders.
Myra eased herself up to standing. “All right,” she said slowly. As she took a step toward the water, she turned back to Alex and ordered, “Mint condition.”
Alex grinned. He began to tickle Percy. Over the boy’s uncontrollable giggles, he said, “I’m sealing him up in plastic this instant.”

The kids knew they weren’t allowed to swim without a counselor. They’d been creeping into the water, up to their ankles, up to their shins, seeing how far in they could get without technically breaking the rules. Joey was wading in even deeper, the water lapping at his waist as he called back to the others, “I’m not swimming if my feet are touching the ground!”
Myra jogged into the water and sank down, submerging her body in the warm, clear lake. “Everyone in!” she said. “Swim away!”
They all splashed in. Joey immediately lifted his feet and paddled with his arms. “I wasn’t swimming before,” he emphasized to Myra. “I was just water-walking.”
“Of course,” she said. “I understand.”
“Oh good,” he said, the shadow of guilt falling away from his young face. He plunged underwater and kicked his way over to rejoin the group. She reclined, floating on her back. The water washed away the sticky sweat from the hike, tickled her ears, and distorted the kids’ chatter. The sun washed over her face and turned her eyelids blazing red.
The kids were splashing around as they swam, stirring up cold pockets deeper down in the lake, dispersing weeds and minnows. Myra tilted herself back up to vertical when she felt the tentacle of a slimy weed coil itself around her ankle. She yanked herself free from its slippery grip and with a few decisive strokes closed the drifting gap between her and the swimming kids. As they swam, they splashed and called to each other, energized by their lake escapades. Myra looked on, close by but treading water in slow motion alongside the kids’ exuberant games. She watched the sun reflect off the droplets the kids flung up into the air, then followed the drops as they plummeted back down and the lake reabsorbed them. The cycles engrossed her, the cycle of the water droplets, the circling of the kids’ arms as they paddled, the swirling paths they sloshed through the surface, leaving round ripples that blossomed and then faded.
She sank farther into the water, enjoying the hot sun on her face and the warm water on her body. She alternated between surveying the swimmers, eyeing Alex sprawled out on the beach with the twins, and shutting her eyes to feel only clean lazy heat and see only undulating red.
But on the next rotation of checking the children, Myra noticed that Zoey’s path had changed from her usual twisting figure eights. She was swimming sporadically and flailing her arms, dunking her head under the surface and then resurfacing dripping wet, water streaming down her head and neck like a grotesque torrent of tears.
Myra plunged herself underwater and with swift kicks propelled herself toward Zoey. Her head had been dry, and the water that felt bathwater warm on her body soaked through her hair like a profusion of chilly spindly fingers rubbing her scalp. She shivered and paddled harder. In a few seconds she was next to Zoey, who was still writhing and waving her arms in a spasmodic dance.
“What’s wrong?” Myra asked.
“It won’t leave me alone!” Zoey whimpered, continuing to flail, narrowly missing smacking Myra’s jaw.
“What won’t?” Myra said, inching in to hold Zoey to stop her from bobbing under the surface and swallowing a lungful of water.
“The giant crazy bug!” Zoey cried, grasping Myra’s shoulder with one arm but continuing to swing with the other.
Myra gazed skyward, squinting against the brightness. At first she saw nothing except clear blue sky, but then she spotted a black speck swerving in erratic spirals above them. Every few seconds it descended in an offensive attempt to land on Zoey, but her thrashing arms forced it to retreat. It repeated the two-step maneuver, careening upward to safety before divebombing down, in an endless alternation that was evidently driving Zoey mad.
In the descent/attack phase, Myra recognized the black spot as a horsefly. When it receded, she glanced around at the other kids who were huddling around them, also troubled by Zoey’s behavior. Their foreheads creased with young worry, a simple yet deep concern.
“Is Zoey dying?” Caitlin said.
“No, of course not,” Myra said, frowning at Caitlin for a moment before she became distracted once more by the fly’s descent. She added her own arm motions to Zoey’s in an effort to add extra protection to the areas she couldn’t reach: the back of her head, the nape of her neck. The fly was speeding its two-step down-up strategy like a bobblehead whose nodding became tighter and more rapid. “Are they getting anyone else?” Myra asked.
Unable to take her eyes from the crazed speck, she heard a chorus of “No” rising up from around her.
Aldo said, “Maybe Zoey has sweet blood. That’s what my dad says when the mosquitos only bite my mom.”
“Sweet?” Zoey wailed. “I bet yesterday I ate the most peanut butter chocolate chip cookies. I didn’t know bugs liked sugar!” Having acknowledged the cause of her terrible fate, she cried, “What do I do now?”
“Do you want to get out of the water?” Myra said.
“Yes!” Zoey said. “I want to go eat broccoli to get out the sugar!”
The fly was now perpetually overhead in an unceasing attack. Myra sheltered Zoey as best as she could as they headed to shore. The fly was so close that Myra could hear it buzzing,  its wings humming like a tiny, evil robotic drone. It weaved in tighter patterns, evading angry limbs with mechanical precision. It stayed with them even as they fled, and in a rush of aggression it zoomed in and alighted on Zoey’s shoulder. Now that it was finally still, Myra saw its fat fuzzy body, its iridescent green eyes, and the filaments of its legs crawling on Zoey’s bare skin. Myra reached out to brush it away. But before she did, Zoey let out a panicked scream as she hitched her shoulder up and brought her head down sideways. She crushed the fly between her shoulder and her cheek.
For a split second it seemed like a victory. Zoey lifted her head and the flattened fly fell away, dead, into the water. But then she was screaming and clutching at her shoulder. Myra maneuvered the writhing girl the last stretch to shore. They fell together in a heap on the beach.
With tears streaming down her cheeks, Zoey lifted her hand away from her shoulder and twisted her neck to assess herself. Myra peered down to inspect her too. They were both surprised to find Zoey’s shoulder unharmed, except for a red smear of blood. But when Zoey tilted her head up to meet Myra’s intent gaze, Myra saw the swelling welt on Zoey’s cheek. The skin was pink and raised in a puffy ring.
Zoey watched the horror spread across Myra’s expression.“What?” she said fearfully. She saw Myra’s gaze flicker down to her cheek, and she pressed a hand to her face. She palpated the swollen skin. “Make it go away,” she whimpered.
Myra cringed. “How does it feel?” she asked.
Zoey grimaced. “Burning hot,” she said. “And tight, like a stretched-out balloon.” She kept touching it, pushing at it with her fingers, running her fingertips along the edge of the puffiness, and then starting to scratch at it.
Myra gently took Zoey’s wrist and lowered her arm. “Try not to touch it, okay?” she said.
“Okay,” Zoey said. She squeezed her hands together in her lap, but her lips puckered and she said, “It itches.”
“I know.”
Now that Zoey was out of the water, the swimming kids had lost interest in her plight and returned to playing. But the group on land made their way over to the afflicted duo. Myra swore under her breath and then hoped Zoey hadn’t heard.
When Alex sauntered up, she said, “Watch the swimmers, would you?”
“Sure, I will,” he said. He eyed Zoey’s cheek and said, “Bee sting?”
“Horsefly,” she corrected. She stood, brushing the sand from her backside, stared straight into his calm blue eyes, and hissed, “Just don’t let anyone drown.”
He blinked slowly and nodded in contemplation. “Okay.”
She helped Zoey up to her feet and told the twins, who were standing in Alex’s shadow, “Come up to camp with me, please.”
Zoey squeezed Myra’s fingers in one hand and pressed her other hand to her face. They tramped up the hill with Cassie and Percy, a motley procession of injury and misfortune.
Myra found a jug of vinegar in a supply closet and dribbled some on a paper towel. She knelt and coaxed Zoey into lifting her hand off her face. When Zoey finally reluctantly complied, Myra daubed the vinegary paper towel over the welt. At first Zoey winced and recoiled; the vinegar smelled caustic and was sure to burn. But her reaction was more an instinct than a response to actual discomfort, and soon she realized that the vinegar didn’t sting. The cold liquid countered the inflammation and soothed the unbearable itching. Myra handed Zoey the paper towel and she continued to rub until the fibers frayed away into white crumbs on her cheek. Myra doused a dishcloth in vinegar and swapped it out for the disintegrating paper towel.
Zoey’s expression was softening from agony to mild resignation, so Myra finally turned back to the twins, who had watched the process from a distance.
“How are you two?” she asked. “Percy?”
“Good,” he said. His naturally grave manner didn’t offer any clues to confirm or deny the monosyllabic report. His nose looked swollen but straight.
“Cassie?” Myra said.
“Good good,” she announced.
Myra got to her feet, sighing. “Well, should we call it a day and collect everyone?”
The kids nodded unanimously.