Aveny’s heels made dull thudding sounds as they bounced off the behemoth stump’s gnarly, bulging bark. Its serpentine roots clutched the ground in a firm embrace, making her feel steady and safe. Brecken sat next to her atop the wooden throne, his dark hair standing up like an explosion. His slender form relaxed into a hunch as he chomped on a bag of mixed cereal.
Tali traipsed back and forth before them, trying to keep her balance on the long wooden frame that contained the playground’s gravel bedding. She held her slender arms aloft, jerking them subtly up and down to maintain her balance, a carefully orchestrated dance of almost complete chance.
Around them, the air was punctuated by the sounds of children playing. A soft rustling rained down as the breeze blew through the park’s impossibly tall pines, towering over them like massive sentinels.
“I love these trees,” Aveny mused aloud. “They’re just so … big.”
All around them, thick pines erupted from the ground like cannon shot, rocketing skyward. Their imposing trunks were completely devoid of branches, which didn’t sprout until the very top, some 100 feet or more in the air. Their dominating presence felt comforting somehow.
Brecken tapped a stick against the stump in time with his swinging legs. He always had a stick – he and Luca both. They could no more than step off a sidewalk and both boys would be instantaneously armed. Aveny chuckled to herself at the thought.
Tali, on the other hand, was more discrete. She could keep up with the boys in their wild games, but could also entertain herself quietly for hours. All she needed was an interesting space to explore, something to climb or an idea to construct.
“What would you do,” Aveny mused, “if you could turn into a … whale?” She paused before the last word, almost saying seal, but changing it at the last moment to something a little less revealing – as if anyone would have guessed the truth.
Tali thought for a second and replied, “I would swim and eat fish!”
Aveny smiled. “Good idea.”
“I would be a whale,” Brecken replied simply.
“Yes, but what would you do?”
“Be a whale,” he insisted, an impish gleam in his eye.
“You’d just sit there in the water and be a whale?” Aveny countered skeptically. “Whales don’t just sit there being whales. They do things. What would you do?”
“I’d be a whale – and do all the things they do.”
Aveny gave a mildly exasperated sigh, “Like what?”
“Fly south for the winter!” he crowed.
Aveny burst out laughing. “Fly south for the winter? Can you imagine hundreds of massive whales soaring over us right now?” She smiled at the thought of their giant shadows blotting out the sun.
Brecken stared at her somberly and, for a moment, she feared she’d hurt his feelings. Then his face broke into a grin and he exploded into laughter.
Aveny laughed too.
“What if they were flying over us right now,” Brecken proposed, his eyes twinkling mischievously, “and they pooped?” He lifted both hands into the air, pantomiming a giant mass falling from the sky and exploding onto the ground.
“Gross!” Aveny exclaimed.
Brecken laughed harder, his giggles increasing in speed and pitch like they always did whenever he was overcome with mirth. Aveny loved that laugh. She poked him playfully in the ribs and then pulled him in for a one-armed hug. “You’re so funny. I love you.”
She planted a kiss atop his spiky head and reveled in its unexpected softness.
Aveny felt alive in a way she’d never experienced before. She’d been going out – sneaking out, really – during unobserved daylight hours or under the velvet cover of night when Brand and the kids were deep in slumber. She’d drive north and slip silently into the sound. It was heaven – a tantalizing delight of sensation – feel, sight, sound, smell and emotion – and more … other sensations far beyond her usual five senses. They came at her in waves, expanding her mind and enriching her heart like never before. It was like swimming in a dream, like immersing in the very primordial liquid of life.
She got better with practice, learning to slip the skin on and off at will. She still wondered, sometimes, if she’d gone mad – but she no longer cared. It was just so wonderful, so freeing, so delightful. The skin had interwoven with her very identity – her very soul. It no longer mattered if she was insane. She could never forsake it.
She existed in the space between delusion and reality; a secret hideaway where, if no one knew, it didn’t matter. Besides, it was worth it.
Tali finished her sandwich and handed Aveny the empty bag. “That was gross,” she pronounced emphatically.
“Seriously?” Aveny replied. “You ate the whole thing!”
“It was sourdough and peanut butter and jelly,” Tali noted pointedly.
“So? That’s delicious – you seriously didn’t like it?”
“Nope!” Tali grinned. “I loved it!” She laughed and bounded off to the playground. She halted just beside the monkey bars, blew into her cupped hands, patted them like a professional gymnast and launched onto the nearest rung.
Aveny shook her head and looked down at Brecken. “My kids are weird,” she said in mock exasperation.
“I wonder why,” he said with a laugh, casting an especially meaningful look in her direction.
It was just a joke, Aveny understood. But if only he knew.