Chapter 24: Departure

    Joey’s parents arrived first. They pulled up in a navy blue SUV. Joey’s dad, tall with the shaggy hair and easy smile of a man half his age, crouched and held out his arms. Joey ran straight into them and his dad swept him up in a robust hug.
    When his dad relinquished him, Joey turned to his mother, who was gazing wistfully at her son like he’d been gone for years. She enveloped him in her plush bosom and peppered him with kisses. He squirmed like a hooked fish. When she released him, his face was beet red but he was fighting back a broad grin that he could suppress on his mouth but not his crinkling eyes.
    Myra and Alex chatted with his parents, assured them how well-behaved he’d been. No really, he barely caused any trouble, and he was a very fine swimmer.
    Alex carried Joey’s bags to the car and gave his hair one final tousle. Alex whispered something to Joey, who grinned and nodded. They high-fived.
    Joey hopped into the backseat, car doors slammed, and the SUV drove away along the twisty gravel road.
    Alex walked back to Myra. “This is the beginning of the end, huh?” he said.
    “Yeah,” she said.
    “They grow up fast,” he teased. “But really, how do you say goodbye every year?”
    “Well, some of them I see again the next year,” she said. “And the ones I don’t…I just trust they’re good.”
    “It’s sad,” he said softly.
    She turned sharply at the melancholy in his voice. He looked truly glum, his mouth turned down and his fingers laced together in an unconscious self-soothing gesture.
    Her repressed ire was waning, and she was thinking of how her hands could fold around his tangled display of farewell prayer, when the next car arrived.
    They said goodbye to Caitlin, Aldo, and Zoey in quick succession. Then a silver sedan wound up the road. Cassie leapt up and ran closer. Percy went to the corner to retrieve luggage. By the time the car reached the camp, Cassie was jumping and waving, and Percy was hobbling over with a duffel bag hanging off each shoulder and a sleeping bag in each hand.
    The twins’ father lifted Cassie up and twirled her above his head in a circle. She grinned and stretched out her arms like a figure-skater. Their mother was wearing a tidy pink cardigan and a teary smile. She took a few small steps to Percy and held his head in her hands. She inhaled deeply into his neatly parted hair and then kissed his forehead. She left behind a faint imprint of pink lipstick, but Percy just beamed.
    Cassie and Percy sat next to each other in the backseat. Percy faced straight ahead as Cassie twisted herself to face backwards and waved goodbye as they drove away.
    Myra and Alex sat with Grace and Luke at the picnic table, but there was a long lull in the parental arrivals. The sun was getting higher and the table was in full sun. Eventually Grace, whose face was flushed a delicate pink from sun exposure, squinted up at Myra and said, “Can I go inside and color?”
    “Of course,” Myra said. “Luke, do you want to stay out here?”
    “No,” he said. “I wanna go inside too.”
    The four of them went back in. Luke claimed the scissors and with zigzagging cuts divided sheet after sheet of paper in two. Grace drew tiny gray snails on white construction paper, staring down at the page as she blinked rapidly.
    “Are you okay?” Myra said softly to Grace. She laid a hand on Grace’s shoulder, but Grace winced and recoiled. “Hey, what’s wrong?” Myra asked, even quieter but more insistent. Grace just shook her head and blinked faster.
    When a white hatchback pulled in and Luke perked up, Myra said, “Alex, could you help Luke carry his stuff?”
    “Yeah, sure,” he said casually.
    The second Luke and Alex were out, Myra slid the crayon from Grace’s hand and said, “Please, please tell me what’s wrong.”
    Grace looked up at Myra. The first tear escaped her watering eyes and slipped down her cheek. Myra held her gaze a few moments longer until she turned away. At first Myra thought she was refusing, but instead she lifted the hem of her shirt to expose her back. The skin was the color of Pepto-Bismol and covered with tiny clear blisters that made her entire back look like pink bubble wrap.
    Myra stared at the devastating sunburn. Working hard to keep her voice calm, she said, “I am so sorry, Grace. How does it feel?”
    “It hurts so bad,” Grace said, her voice cracking. She let her shirt fall and turned back to Myra, her face twisted in pain as she struggled to hold back tears.
    “Oh, sweetie,” Myra sighed. “I’ll get aloe vera, it’ll help soothe the burning.”
    But when she started to stand, Grace cried, “No!”
    Myra sat back down. “Please, you need it,” she said. “You’ll feel so much better.”
    Grace craned her neck to peer out the window. Alex appeared to be chatting congenially with Luke’s dad as Luke clung to his father’s leg. “Don’t tell Alex, okay?” she said.
    “Why not?” Myra said slowly.
    Grace gazed earnestly at her. “Alex did my back sunscreen yesterday,” she said. “He told me he would redo it after an hour. But I don’t like the way it feels goopy on my back,” she confessed, “so I didn’t remind him when the hour was up.” She sniffled. “I know he’ll feel bad if he sees, but it’s all my fault.”
    “Oh. Oh Grace, no it’s not.” Myra laid her cool hands on Grace’s tear-streaked cheeks. Grace tried to turn away, but Myra held her face steady, looked unremittingly into her guilty eyes, and said, “This is not your fault.”
    “But it is!” Grace yelped.
    “No, it’s not,” Myra declared. “You understand this is a really bad sunburn?”
    “I know,” Grace whimpered.
    “I need you to listen to me,” Myra said. “You would not be burned like this from swimming for two hours after using sunscreen.”
    “I don’t understand,” Grace said. “I was.”     
    “No,” Myra said. “I don’t think you were wearing sunscreen.”
    “But Alex did it for me. I felt it.”
    “He couldn’t have,” Myra said. “You did the rest of your sunscreen before you swam, right?”
    Grace nodded.
    “And you’re not sunburned anywhere else except your back.”
    Her eyes widened. “That’s true,” she whispered. Her gaze flickered toward the window. Luke and his dad were getting in the car. “But still don’t tell him, oh, don’t tell him!” Grace begged hysterically.
    “Okay. I won’t!” Myra said. “Just follow my lead, okay?” she hissed.
    Grace gave a panicked nod.
    Luke’s dad had lowered his car window, and Alex was standing by the drivers side, still talking through the open window.
    “Let’s go to the bathroom,” Myra announced. “I’ll grab the aloe.”
    The car window was raising. Alex was waving goodbye. Grace was distraught watching the scene outside. She let out an involuntary unhappy squeak when Alex turned back toward the mess hall.
    “Go stall him outside,” Myra ordered.
    Grace clambered up and dashed outside.
    Myra rushed to the supply closet and slipped the aloe bottle into the waistband of her jeans. She hurried back through the mess hall and was almost to the door when a sudden thought brought her to a halt. She stood immobile, the bottle cap digging into her hip, Grace’s tears sticky on her palms. She walked to the end of the table and picked up Alex’s pocketknife. The metal handle felt like ice in her hand. The blade glinted in the sunlight. She snapped the knife closed, shoved it into her pocket, and went outside.
    Alex and Grace were standing together. “My other favorite girl,” he teased as Myra approached.
    “We’re going to the bathroom,” Myra announced.
    “Don’t leave me alone too long,” Alex joked.
    Myra tried to smile. Her mouth felt like a dead worm glued to her face. “We won’t,” she said.
    They passed Alex and entered the girls’ bathroom. The stench of shit hit hard but Myra ignored it. She took the aloe bottle from her waistband and popped open the cap. “This is going to feel cold,” she warned.
    Grace lifted her shirt again. It was better in the dim bathroom; Myra couldn’t see the layer of wrinkled, fluid-filled blisters. She squirted a dollop of aloe into her palm and spread the gel over Grace’s bumpy back. Grace was crying again but she stayed still and let Myra coat her back with aloe.
    When Myra finished, Grace lowered her shirt over the gummy skin and straightened up. “Thank you,” she peeped. “It feels like an ice pack, in a good way.”
    “I’m glad,” Myra said. She rinsed her hands at the sink and then they left the bathroom.
    They glimpsed a red car through the trees. From a distance, they saw Alex standing with Grace’s mother. He was gesturing as he spoke, his eyebrows wiggling up and down his forehead, an animated storyteller. Grace’s mother was focused on Alex, seemingly locked into the story as it developed. Her eyes widened in surprise, then she grimaced in distress, and finally by the end she was laughing with one hand on her hip and the other raking back her wavy hair against the breeze.
    Myra and Grace walked to them. When Grace’s mother saw her daughter approaching, her laughter softened and complexified into an expression of nostalgic fondness. As Grace neared her mother, she broke into a skipping run to close the distance. Her mother wrapped her in a tight embrace, squeezing her arms across her back, and Grace just clung tighter.
    When they separated, Grace turned back to face the counselors, and Myra noticed her watery eyes. But Grace discreetly caught the extra moisture with a few swipes of her fingertips, and she had the same stoic face as always.
    “Good to see you again, Myra,” Grace’s mother said.
    “You too, Helen,” Myra said. They each extended their hand, then laughed and hugged. Myra inhaled into Helen’s hair; she hadn’t smelled properly clean hair in a week, and the scent was enticingly fresh but overwhelmingly floral, like hyperventilating into a dewy bouquet.
    They released each other and Helen said, “Alex here was just telling me how my daughter’s becoming quite the artist.”
    “She is,” Myra agreed. “Grace, do you have your owl drawing?”
    Grace nodded. “It’s in my bag.”
    “And the watercolor?” Alex asked.
    “I have that too,” Grace said.
    “We’re all set, then,” Helen said, laying a hand on Grace’s shoulder. “And again, I’m sorry for being so late.” Laughing, she said, “I’ve driven here how many times over the years, and I get lost every time.”
    Alex said, “No need to apologize, Helen.” He patted Grace on the back and said, “We were happy for the extra time with your lovely daughter.”
    “You’re too kind,” Helen said. “Okay Grace, say goodbye.”
    Grace gazed up at Alex. “Bye Alex,” she said. She turned her wide eyes to Myra and said, “Bye Myra. See you next year.”
    “Bye Grace,” Myra said. “Have a wonderful summer.”
    “Keep drawing, Gracie,” Alex said.
    “I will,” Grace said.
Helen took the drivers seat, Grace climbed into the backseat, and the red car drove away, the wheels raising beige dust clouds as the car crunched over the gravel road.