Most of our first grade class is at the sleepover tonight. Our parents are busy and we are free.
Everyone who’s my friend and a bunch of kids who aren’t are all here, ready to stay up late and then sleep in, all the way until pick-up time in the morning, when we will leave Ainsworth Gym and go home. No one here knows how to think about tomorrow, about if it’ll really come, and what will happen to us when it does. It’s only Friday, so we’ll have another weekend night after tonight but our parents will say that we can’t have another sleepover.
There’s an unlimited pile of movies next to the VCR and we’re eating sweet and tangy corn chips from a big plastic bowl and we can see our fingers through the sides when we dip them in to scoop the crumbs and lick up the salt and spice. There’s Hi-C and Sunny D and Tang, and one kid has already peed his pants and has a new pair on, because every kid has to bring a change of pants and underwear in a plastic bag.
There are bowls full of Oreos that we’ve crushed with our fingers, and a canister of whipped cream that we spray all over and eat it down like a sundae.
The counselors (there are two of them, I think, and one other big kid who’s their friend, or maybe there are three) say that there’s no official lights out. We can stay up until we are physically unable to stay up any longer. In other words, no one will close our eyes for us. Some parents said they’d like to text around nine to check in, but Ainsworth Gym has a no phones during sleepovers policy.
The first movie I don’t remember, and the second was a comedy, a PG about a jailbreak with some serious beatings. We all cringed along, giggling about how much it must hurt to get beaten with a nightstick when you’re trying to break out of jail, and how great it would be.
Now we’re watching Lake Boy, a PG-13 that we watch every time. It always comes third and is by far the most important. It’s about some kids at a summer camp who sneak out of their bunks on the last night before their parents pick them up at the end of the four-week session, to take them home for the start of school and everything after. They’re all seven-year-olds, just like us, four of them, and they sneak out to do the one thing they’re not allowed to do: swim in the lake at night with no one watching. They creep down in their bathing suits and flip-flops, because, after three weeks and six days of nights spent asleep in their bunks, they can’t stay away from the lake a minute longer.
They’re thinking about how they’ve had to wake up every morning this month to leap in the water and do polar bears, which means getting drenched to the bone at sunrise, but that was with the Coach watching, holding an attendance sheet on a clipboard to make sure that everyone was there, and that everyone was still there when it was time to get out. He had a stopwatch to measure how long they’d been in for, and to make sure they never missed breakfast.
Everyone wanted to do polar bears because the alternative morning activity was farm chores, which they say is just feeding the animals but actually involves dealing with poop.
We know, because we went to a camp like this last summer, when we’d all just turned seven. We did polar bears in the same kind of lake as in the movie, but we were all too scared to sneak out at night, and, besides, we hadn’t seen the movie yet because we weren’t allowed to watch PG-13 until this fall. Now we’re basically seven and a half, and it’s cold outside, and nearly Christmas.
So the kids in the movie (we’re coming to this part now) go down to the lake on the very last night. Some of their parents who come from far away are probably already on the road, racing to pick them up with enough daylight left to drive all the way back home tomorrow.
We all went to camp in Connecticut or New York or another place like that, and our parents had to drive a long way to get us. It was just three of us then. Our parents said they could have carpooled, just one parent driving to pick up three campers, and that way they’d keep the environment from being destroyed, but they all missed us too much, after we’d been gone for four weeks, and no one could bear not to see us right away, especially because of the no phone policy, so they came in three cars.
Almost as soon as the kids get in the water, one of them drowns. But it’s not like he really drowns, exactly. It’s like something down in there, that was waiting very, very quietly and for a long time, reaches up and grabs him, hard, and pulls him straight down, and all the way down. It’s almost like this thing knew they were coming, or even told them to come and knew for sure that they would.
The whole scene is kind of weird and fast and creepy in this part, but that’s why it’s PG-13, so you can’t tell for sure what’s happening. But one of them drowns, and in the morning, when the parents come for pick-up, it’s only three of them left.
Except he doesn’t quite exactly drown. This is just the beginning. Later on, he becomes what’s known as Lake Boy.
For the next ten years, the kids start to get old as they think about what happened. The movie skips over this part. Then, exactly ten years later, when they’re all seventeen and have their own cars and licenses and beer and cigarettes, they decide to drive back to the camp and go in that lake again.
Something about what happened that night stayed with them all this time and they used to not have the courage to think about it, but now they’re seventeen and it’s now or never. So they pile into one car with rock music and crumpled Wendy’s wrappers on the floor, and take off onto the same highway that their parents drove down to pick them up. It’s the end of the last summer before college, and they’re sad, and want to do it before they’re grownups and have kids of their own.
They plan it so that they get back to the campground in Connecticut or New York at the same time of night that they went swimming there the last time.They park in a patch of weeds next to the road and sneak into the campground, past the counselors who are supposed to be keeping guard but are sleeping and kissing and stuff instead.
They get in and walk past the archery range and the climbing structure and the mess hall and the Singing Rock, where everyone has to sing work songs that the counselors say are about heroic men and women in ancient Russia, and down the steep path to the lake.
They take all of their clothes off. In this part, a lot of the girls in the sleepover room giggle because you can see their butts, but we boys know that’s what you have to be ready for when you watch a PG-13.
Now they’re in the water, three heads bobbing. They bob for a while, spitting water that’s ten years older than before and tastes like moss. They look up at the sky, where you can see the moon between the thick summer trees, turning the black mossy water yellow and green.
And then, just like that, as those three heads are bobbing, a fourth bobs up, and is there with them. No one says anything. They turn slowly to look at it. It doesn’t look at them.
They know who it is, and we do too, watching from our sleeping bags. It’s their friend who drowned ten years ago, but, instead of being all rotten and a skeleton, he’s a seventeen-year-old too. He looks just like he would have if he’d come to middle school and high school and learned to drive, and hadn’t spent those years alone on the bottom of the lake.
They know better than to scream. They bob there for a long time, looking at their old friend, who doesn’t know them anymore.
They stay as long as they can, but soon the new seven-year-olds, who are at camp this year, will be up with the Coach to do polar bears, and if the seventeen-year-olds get caught they’ll be taken to jail and beaten with nightsticks.
So they say goodbye, and slink away, drying off with the towels they left on the bank, and put their underwear and pants back on, and decide it’s good they came here tonight because they’ll never come again.
Then we see him one last time. He turns to look right at us and smiles without opening his mouth, looking all the way through the screen and into Ainsworth Gym, past the other children and at us alone, like he knows that we never went down to the lake at night when we were at camp last summer, and then he sinks back under the water. As soon as the ripples have stopped, the seven-year-old polar bears start streaming in, shouting at the cold, and the Coach starts his stopwatch as the sun begins to rise and the credits roll.
We’ve seen this movie ten times. I said “a hundred times” at home when my parents had grownup friends over, but my mom said I’m only allowed to see it at sleepovers, and I’ve only been to ten of those so far.
But it’s still a lot of times, that’s for sure, and each time after I see it I close my eyes and dream about the bottom of the lake and what it’d be like to spend the next ten years down there, and sometimes I feel like that’s where we’re supposed to go, like something bad will happen to me and my friends if we don’t. Like we’ll all turn into seedy grownup alcoholics like Janitor Pete, who my mom says is a man who can’t face something that men have to face.
So me and Miles Coffey and Corey Inch, my two best friends since the beginning, have been talking about what to do. At first, we were waiting to go back to camp next summer, but then we realized we’d be eight by then, and it’d be too late. You have to do it when you’re seven, we know this much.
Our parents discussed signing us up for these Ainsworth Gym sleepovers at the beginning of the year. They asked us if it was okay, and we said yes, as long as we could all three be together, and there’d be no limit on what we could eat and what we could watch. Our parents agreed, and said it was really lovely to go out to Paradiso Grille with each other once in a while, on a date, and not have to come home and do the dishes.
At the sleepover last week, it dawned on us: let’s do it in the pool at Ainsworth Gym! They have a pool down in the basement, a giant Olympic one. We’ve never been down there, but we know where it is because we snuck out last time and went down to where there was a sign that said POOL and a symbol that meant stairs. Janitor Pete, who works at our school and also here at the gym, saw us and said, “You kids better get back up to sleep.”
So we ran back up, our hearts as big as our whole chests, and skidded through the door, which was open a crack so kids could go to the bathroom, and crawled into our sleeping bags and zipped them so tight over our heads that we almost couldn’t breathe.
No one said anything when our parents picked us up in the morning, and when we saw Janitor Pete at school he didn’t say anything either.
Tonight we’re going all the way down there.
It has to be tonight, because soon is coming Christmas break, and we’ll be at our grandparents’ houses, and Miles is going to Guadalupe, and in the new year we might not be us anymore.
It’s me, and Miles and Corey, and we have a new friend too, which makes four. He just moved to town from someplace like Wisconsin. We don’t know him too well, and don’t completely love him, but he’s definitely okay, unlike most kids. And besides, we couldn’t make the mission with just three of us because there are four in Lake Boy, so it’s pretty lucky that we met him when we did.
He hasn’t seen the movie as much as we have, but he says he wants to come with us no matter what because he loves to sneak out of places. Once, in Wisconsin, he snuck out of the car at a stoplight while his mom was driving, and ran onto someone’s lawn and then through the back door of someone’s house, and his mom didn’t know he was gone until the police called her on her cell phone.
He’s in our class at school. Once, at lunch, he tried to eat a whole candy bar with the wrapper on. He actually did eat it before the teacher could get to his desk in the back of the room. “Prove it,” he said, and the teacher couldn’t.
He says he’s allowed to watch Jerry Springer, and that he’s slept in every room in his house, and one time he drank a whole bottle of wine.
Our parents say that his mom is probably depressed and lies around in bed with her clothes on and the lights off, and his dad is far away, sending money and never calling, even to say where he is. They met his mom at the farmers’ market at the end of the summer, they told us, and haven’t seen her since. They told us that this is probably a family that moves around a lot, so we shouldn’t be too disappointed if one day our new friend is gone.
The counselors are whispering to each other now, and they keep looking over to see if our eyes are still open. They have their phones out, probably texting their friends who are waiting in the parking lot, telling them when to come in and hang out, after the kids are asleep.
We know that they all leave the room at the same time, and don’t come back until morning. All we have to do is pretend to be asleep until they go, and then we just get up and leave quietly. The big teacher who’s in charge of everything and who makes the reports to our parents has already gone home. We saw him talking to the counselors outside the door, and then he zipped up his jacket and left.
The only challenge is to make sure we don’t really fall asleep while we’re pretending. It can be hard, especially with our stomachs so full, and having watched so many movies in a row, and being in our sleeping bags with our eyes closed, thinking about the water way down inside the lake. We’re even making pretend snoring sounds.
We all focus hard on replaying the final moments of Lake Boy, when the three seventeen-year-olds leave the lake, and their friend bobs for one second longer before sinking again. It’s tiring to imagine what it would be like to really be seventeen, knowing that you’ll never be seven again, but we can’t stop imagining it.
“Okay,” I whisper to Miles, my face sweaty from fending off sleep. “It’s time.”
He leans over and looks at me, yawning. He nods, and reaches over to nudge Corey, who nudges our new friend.
The counselors are gone now. The TV is switched off, and all the other kids are sleeping. Their deep breaths smell like Cooler Ranch.
We’re up and out of the room, running down the smooth white tiles. We know that the counselors are out in the parking lot now, but, still, it’s a little scary to be out here. We don’t know who might see us, so we’re running as fast as we can.
Our heads are just above the railing on the side of the corridor that looks down over the basketball court. Down the stairs now, which smell like cement and spilled water, and have red doors so heavy that all four of us have to push at once, our eight hands completely covering the handle in skin. Miles and Corey and I are whispering to each other, giving updates on the mission. Our new friend doesn’t say anything, and we can tell that he isn’t even listening.
After we go down enough stairs, we come to the long hallway that leads around to the pool. We push through the last of the red doors, go past the Men’s Strength Room, which is behind glass and opens only with an ID card, and up to the door of the Men’s Locker Room, which is propped open.
The lights are all off. There were some all-night bulbs burning in the hallway, but not anymore. We feel around on the walls for a moment, looking for a switch, but, when we don’t find one, we quit. We think, “They didn’t have any lights at the lake,” and we’re a little ashamed that we hoped to find some here.
We take off our clothes and put them in open lockers. Our shoes are still up in the sleepover room, along with our clean underwear and pocket money, but when we take off our socks we feel how cold the floor is.
As we walk side by side into the shower room we realize that no one brought towels, but that’s okay. It would have been hard to run with them.
We all feel pretty proud, like we’ve just made a daring journey through enemy territory and now we’re safe on the other side.
We each go into our own shower stall and crank the handle. The water comes out freezing and we duck away from it, down in the corner, and then it starts to steam and burns our shoulders and armpits. We have to reach under and push the handle toward the middle, and then we can stand it. We warm up and cool down at the same time. It reminds us of the outdoor showers we had at camp. They had only cold water, so you had to wait until the day warmed up to wash off the morning’s lake scum.
When we’re done, we line up in the middle of the shower room, nod to each other in the dark, and push through the door that leads to the last hallway, past the Women’s Locker Room and the pile of kickboards and rope, and out to the pool.
None of us has ever been here before.
The room is freezing on our scorched skin, and we can smell the cold chlorine, and hear it lapping. We can’t see the ceiling, or any of the walls.
“Okay men,” I say. “Here we go.”
On the count of three we smash through the surface and are underwater, where the only light is the glow from the side-lights down at the deep end that stay on all night. When we poke our heads up for air, we can’t see anything except the glowing greenish water around our necks, like the lake under the moon through the trees.
Me, Miles, Corey, and our new friend are all wiggling our hips and kicking our feet as fast as we can, trying to get used to the water. Shiver-bumps run up and down my arms and thighs, and I try to shake them off like they’re the source of the cold and not a reaction to it.
We duck under and swim around and around, our ears popping as we strain toward the bottom of the deep end. I go all the way down and scrape along on my belly, pulling with my hands like a stingray.
When I blast back up, I shout as I break the surface. My voice echoes louder than I expected it to, and I decide not to do this again. I duck under to where I can’t hear the echo, but I hear a low hum or growl instead, so I come back up and look around, but now my eyes are too blurry to make out who’s who. I can see only the shapes of heads.
Then, as I stay on the surface treading water, I hear what sounds like the door opening and someone with very quiet feet walking in. My skin gets so tight it tries to go inside me, leaving my bones to rust like exposed pipes.
I hear those feet walking up to the water, and I dive under, as deep as I can, back to being a stingray who’s invincible. I feel the impact of something landing as I pull myself all the way to the bottom of the deep end, and stay under until the pain in my ears and lungs makes me about to cry, and then I shoot back up to the surface and suck in the air, and hold my nose and blow out hard, something like snot coming out of my ears, and I’m crying so I duck back under to wash my face.
When I come up again I’m holding the edge of the pool at the corner of the deep end, with the High Dive way up above me. I can’t hear anyone now, no voices nor footsteps nor paddling fingers anywhere in the world. I want to breathe a lot, but the air tastes bad.
I stay like this until I hear, “Get up here, we’re jumping!”
I turn to look at the base of the High Dive where the curving ladder starts, and hear several sets of feet walking up. I get out and tiptoe over, holding my shoulders. I look up, and think I can see four bodies, three of them waiting on the stairs, and the other one way out on the board. It barely hesitates before jumping in, and barely makes a splash when it does.
Now there’s only two up ahead of me, with the third in the air.
Pretty soon, I’m alone at the end of the High Dive.
I try to look down, but all I see is green ripples and buried black shapes.
Standing here with the grooved bouncing board under my feet, I want to shout “Something’s in here with us!” but I don’t.
I want to stand on the board until it gets light and there are people around, but I feel something about to creep up from behind and push me in, and my back caves so far forward that I have to jump to keep from falling.
The water feels like the edge of a table when it hits my head. I get so dizzy that I feel something pulling on my ankles. I go down and stay under a long time. I keep trying to get back up, looking at those lights on the tiled edges, but it’s like trying to climb a wall. The back of my head feels nailed to the bottom and bubbles rush up from my nose, straight to the surface in the dark.
I stay under longer than I ever have before, and feel my lungs pounding on my ribs and my stomach pressing out all the chips and cookies I ate, into my throat that wants to throw them up but is tied too tight.
At last, it lets me go. I fly clean out of the water and into the air, which is rattled with screaming. “Aaah aaah aaah aaah!!” something in here goes, like it has burning paper stuffed way back in its mouth.
I see heads flying around the water, too fast to count, fighting to stay where they can breathe. I hold onto the edge of the pool and bury my face in my arms.
Then the lights come on.
Janitor Pete, in jeans, sneakers, and a red sweatshirt, is standing by the shallow end, looking at us. I see our new friend floating in the water, and I close my eyes tight and crawl up onto the tiled edge and lie there facedown, smelling the tile and the water lapping over it.
After a while, I feel a strong hand on my shoulder, rolling me over. I go onto my back, but don’t open my eyes. Then I hear Corey and Miles call my name and rough fingers reach down to my eyelids, forcing me to look straight up at Janitor Pete, crouching over me with his morning breath.
He starts to hoist me up, pulling hand over hand like he’s reeling me in. My feet touch the tile and remember what it feels like to stand.
I see Miles and Corey wrapped in towels, and Janitor Pete holds one out to me, and helps me get it around my shoulders. He must have taken some spare ones from the supply closet after he found us here. He takes me and Miles and Corey up through the heavy doors and out to the parking lot where our parents are waiting.
Everyone looks pale and I don’t hear anyone talking. The counselors are slouched by the gym entrance, their long hair hanging around their downturned heads.
I see my parents, and Corey’s, and Miles’, and also a woman who I think is our new friend’s mom, even though I’ve never actually seen her before. She has big purple bags under her eyes and her lipstick is smudged out onto her cheeks, like she was driving too fast with her head out the window. She looks like she’s not totally awake, her arm hanging limp at her side. A kid with her same purple eyes and bruised lips is trying to hold her hand, looking at the place where his fingers become hers.
At first I think this must be our new friend, but then I think it can’t be. I close my eyes and try to remember exactly what he looked like, but all I see is those black heads bobbing in the green water. I stay there with them until someone gently shakes me.
As I walk toward where my parents are waiting, I look back at that woman and the boy next to her and can tell that soon we won’t be seeing them around.
Just before we split up into our different Saturdays, I say to Miles and Corey, “I guess we’ll have to wait ten years until we can come back here and find out what happened.”
“Yeah,” says Miles, hesitating for a moment. “And by then we’ll be seventeen, and able to drive and watch rated R.”
As our parents’ three cars pull out of the parking lot, I start to wonder what we’ll do on Friday nights now that Ainsworth Gym is behind us. I lean against the backseat and look at the clock radio under the windshield, ticking in the silence of the car like we’re not driving home to breakfast but to a funeral in a dim stone church instead.