For half a day, everything was perfect.
After one of my fellow Corps Members told the team on Tuesday she was leaving, half a lifetime ago, everyone had been sleepwalking. It was like a death in the family, hearing that one of the people you’d laughed with and trained with and been bored out of your skull with was pulling up her roots and leaving for home pastures, that she had declined this program and our duties and everything we were supposed to go out and do. Everybody took it differently, but nobody was unscathed.
Chelsea, in the name of team morale, had us go and play hooky for a day. We’d already worked a forty-hour week in four days, less one visit to the CDC, and one more day of fluorescent light and sitting on the computer might have laid half the team low. So we slept in ‘til ten o’clock in the morning, had the rest of the morning and early afternoon free to walk around or loll on the beds in our rooms or go to Applebee’s or fried chicken and mozzarella sticks, whatever, and around 2:30 we all piled into the van and headed for a little trail next to a big lake. It was the best decision any one of us had made since getting here.
Picture a forest of great big oak trees, showering red-gold leaves onto the forest floor, with little winding paths leading down to the water where you have to climb down roots and rocks and jump down onto one huge stone before scrambling the rest of the way to the beach. Picture a beach of red clay and sparkling mica and all kinds of rocks littering it—clear quartz crystals, black pancakes of basalt, a hundred kinds of rocks so soft they crumble at the touch. Feel, if you can, your feet sinking with a squelch into the sandy bottom of the lake, which busies itself rolling past your ankles and curling between your toes like the world’s best massage. Observe the glittering clouds of silt, dotted with a million specks of mica that sparkle in the sun, that billow up from the bottom whenever you take a step.
That lake was irresistible. Ringed with orange and shading a beautiful blue-green the farther out you go, it demanded we abandon our propriety and just dive in. One by one, we shucked off our shoes and socks, stripped down to our underwear or T-shirts and plunged into the ice-cold waters to meet curious fish. We skipped those flat black stones for what felt like miles across the water, made impossible dives for overthrown Frisbees that usually ended in a huge SPLASH, slathered ourselves with mud from the bottom and flung it at each other and laughed and laughed.
All too soon, it was time for the magical afternoon to slowly wind its way down. We’d long since wandered out of the water, drying out in the warm sun and reclining on our rocky thrones, snapping pictures of each other and playing the-floor-is-lava with boulders and pebbles on the ground. Clothes had to be donned, dignity reassumed (as much as it ever was), shoes found and rocks collected. As we trekked back up the hillside, lazily tossing memories and chuckles back and forth, Summit Five could scarcely help but feel a deep sense of peace.
Fifteen hours later, we would be eating up I-85 on the way to an unknown future on the East Coast. One of our team members would be on a bus back to Mississippi, having left the program for good. Another would have just returned from the hospital and most of the rest of us would be exhausted and stressed from a sleepless night and morning of packing and driving around Suwannee. For now, though, we were leaving Paradise.