Chapter 23: Hidden talents

Myra awoke in a state of lethargic contentment. The sun was pouring in and she felt like a sunbathing cat, fur hot to the touch and closed eyes seeing blood-orange light. She rolled over on top of her sleeping bag and stretched languorously. She remembered why she was lying on her sleeping bag instead of inside it. Her eyes fluttered open. She could see into Cassie’s and Grace’s bottom bunks. They were both empty. She bolted up. The blood coursed downward and she felt nauseatingly dizzy. She gripped one bunk bed’s ladder for a moment to avoid falling over. All the beds were empty. She raced out of the cabin. Through the mess hall window, she could see kids sitting around the table. She jogged over and went in. She felt the sickening disorientation of having awakened from a long afternoon nap at midnight. Everyone was there. She counted nine bodies and one empty chair. “Good morning, sleepyhead!” Alex called, waving her over while still holding his fork. She sank into her seat next next to him. She smelled pastry. Everyone was eating quiche. Alex cut her a wedge. She picked up her fork with a shaky hand and ate a bite. The crust was warm and flaky. The egg filling was hearty yet airy, studded with bacon and swirled with cheese. She swallowed two more greedy bites and then let the fork clatter onto her plate. “You made this?” she asked. “I did,” he said. “From scratch?” She frowned. She was almost positive that their supplies didn’t include pie crusts. “Even the crust?” He nodded. “It’s just flour, water, butter, and salt. Super easy.” As if he knew she was picking apart the ingredient sources, he added, “We’ve got the 10-pound sack of white flour in the cupboard. Regular butter and salt. Tap water.” “Uh-huh,” she said slowly. “Don’t you like it?” he said. “No, I do,” she said. “It’s just…you…” He gave her a sheepish smile. “I know, I don’t cook breakfast. You’re always up the earliest. Today was my treat.” He poured orange juice from the pitcher into the empty glass by her plate and asked, “How did you sleep?” She chugged half the glass and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “Good,” she said. She studied his face, his pupils. “How do you feel this morning?” she probed. “Really great,” he said. “Very fresh and sharp.” “Yeah?” she said faintly. “Yeah,” he said, nodding vigorously. She took another bite of quiche and chewed slowly. “Good,” she repeated. The quiche was a big hit with the kids. They gobbled down slice after slice until only crumb-dusted aluminum pie pans remained. Having finished fueling up, they started getting antsy at the table. “I’ll clean up,” Alex said. He shifted in his seat in order to stand, but Myra grabbed his wrist. “No, take the kids outside,” she said. “I’ll clean up.” “You sure?” he asked. “I’m the one who made the mess.” “I’m sure,” she said. He clasped his hand over hers, then drummed against the tabletop and asked, “Who wants to go play outside!” Eight manic voices cried, “Me!” He led them out in a chaotic procession. Finally the door slammed behind them and Myra was sitting alone at the table. She picked up a crumb from a pie plate between her forefinger and thumb and dropped it into her mouth. She rubbed at her eyes and stood up. The plates, forks, knives, juice glasses, and pitcher went into the dishwasher. The pie pans were hand-washed and set on the drying rack. She poured in soap and started the dishwasher. It was only half full, but the kids were leaving before lunch today, and she needed to leave everything clean for the next camp that began on Monday. She leaned against the counter and listened to the whir of the dishwasher starting up. She stared absent-mindedly at the green light next to the button with faded black letters that had once read ‘WASH.’ The W was worn off from repeated finger-pressing. She wandered outside. Alex was playing pick-up volleyball-soccer with everyone except Percy, who was sitting alone at the picnic table. As Myra walked over, she saw Percy put something in his mouth and chew. She sat next to him and said, “Hey Perce. What are you eating?” His hand was curled around something. He flattened out his hand and extended it toward her. A small button mushroom rested on his palm. She tasted bile. She stared at Percy’s pupils, but they looked the same. She snatched the mushroom out of his hand and clutched his arm. “Percy. Look at me. Did you eat one of these mushrooms?” Eyes wide, he nodded. Her heart thudding in her throat, she asked, “How do you feel?” He shrugged. “Fine,” he said. “Do you know what these are?” she asked, waving her mushroom-holding fist. “Yes,” he said. “Agaricus bisporus.” “Oh my god, Percy,” she groaned. She lay her hand over his forehead, but he didn’t feel feverish or clammy. She, however, felt absolutely ill. “You need to throw up,” she insisted. “Can you make yourself throw up? No, of course you can’t. Maybe we have ipecac in first aid…” Percy took Myra’s hand. “I’m fine,” he repeated. “What’s wrong?” She swallowed. “Those mushrooms. They’re psychedelics…they make you hallucinate.” His forehead crinkled. “They don’t,” he said. “They’re just regular edible wild mushrooms. Agaricus bisporus: the common mushroom.” “Are you sure?” she pressed. He nodded solemnly. “I’m sure,” he said. “Go on, eat the other one.” He was utterly confident and clear-headed. “You don’t see any electric currents?” she asked suspiciously. Perplexed, he said, “I don’t think so.” She opened her fist. The mushroom was slightly smushed but otherwise intact. She looked unhappily down at its little white mass, then grimaced and popped it in her mouth. It tasted bitter and acidic, but its texture was smooth and squeaky. She gagged a little and swallowed it down in one gulp. “See?” Percy said. “Fine.” She nodded slowly. She felt the same, although with a mildly tangy taste on her tongue. “Did you pick them?” “No,” he said. “They were on the grass, by the picnic table. But I recognized them.” “Just two?” she said. “Yes.” They only had a few hours before the parents arrived, so Myra gently put an end to soccer and got them into the cabins to pack. The girls retrieved their duffel bags from underneath their bunk beds and piled in their well-worn clothes. A week of outdoor exploration with no laundry facilities ensured that every garment had some kind of grass stain, dirt streak, or lakewater brine. The suitcases took it all. Packing went fast. They hadn’t brought much. They zipped up their bags, stuffed their sleeping bags into carrying sacks, and lugged everything over to the mess hall. The boys met them there and they heaped up all their luggage in a corner on the floor. With everyone’s belongings in order, Alex declared, “I have one last art project.” “Fine,” Myra said coolly, scrutinizing him for signs of deceit. But he just flashed her his usual grin. He set stacks of colored construction paper and the bin of crayons on the dining table. The kids gathered around and grabbed up their favorite colors before they even knew what the project was. Alex brought out the wooden box he’d shown Myra days ago. The kids all leaned in, curious for the big reveal. He held out the box, lifted the clasp, and raised the lid with a flourish. He shook the tokens out onto the table and passed them around. The kids clamored for them until everyone had taken possession of at least one. Myra kept her hands folded in her lap. “What are they?” Caitlin asked, holding one of the wooden pieces up to her face for closer inspection. “They’re pendants,” Alex explained. “Jewelry you can wear like a necklace.” “How?” Zoey said. “They’re too small, and they’re not stretchy.” Alex laughed. “You put a string through the hole at the top, and then the string goes around your neck.” “Oh.” “So,” Alex continued. “I carved these ones out of wood, but I thought you could cut them out of construction paper for your parents. Like cards, but with more fun shapes.” “I wanna make a spy walkie talkie,” Joey said. “I’ll make a turtle,” Grace said. Soon everyone was sketching outlines with crayons. They only had one pair of kid scissors, plus an enormous deadly kitchen shears that Myra strictly forbade anyone from using. They took turns cutting out their shapes with the scissors, and kids who got too impatient asked Myra to cut theirs out with the shears. Alex took out a pocketknife and a rough stub of wood and continued whittling. When they each had a finished shape, the kids embellished them with endearing messages for their parents: ‘I love u mom and dad’ scrawled unevenly over the surface of a lily pad, ‘I missed you a hoal lot’ winding along the handle of a canoe paddle. Myra took a sheet of yellow paper. Without drawing anything first, she cut freehand using the kitchen shears. She regarded the mess of crayons in front of her but didn’t take one, just slipped the little shape into her pocket. Then she watched Alex whittle.
He held the wood in his left hand, the knife in his right. He scraped away filaments of wood, which fell in a heap of shavings on the table. Once again he had that look of intense concentration, where his eyes gleamed and his mouth slackened and he seemed to have x-ray vision that saw through the wood into another dimension of the universe that clarified paths to possibility and perfection. She imagined that gaze directed at her, cutting through superficiality while concealing horrors, like a demon standing in the darkness behind a spotlight projector.