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.