If a kid got lost in the lake, all the counselors had to dive. They were supposed to line up an arm's length from each other, dive to the bottom, swim a few feet, then come straight up for air. If you dove close to shore it wasn't bad. You only had to go down a few feet. But out at the end of the dock, beneath the diving board, it was twelve or fifteen or twenty feet to the bottom. That's what we called deep-deep.
I wasn't a counselor. I wasn't counselor material, especially not at Wanderwell Reformatory Boys' Camp. I wasn't there to reform anyone, I just wanted to get out of my mom's basement for the summer. Bagging cream of wheat and counting bowstrings in the quartermaster's A-frame was better than listening to my mom and Shouty Phil rampage through the house. I didn't want to be a counselor. I didn't want to be responsible for anyone . . . but they still made me dive.
The day before the kids arrived, I brought my sketch pad out to the dock, thinking I could sit out while they went through the drill. The camp director thought otherwise. Melanie, swinging her lifeguard whistle around her fist, delivered the news.
"Dan, you're on deep-deep, " she said. "El Generalissimo says."
Tim was out there already. Tim had coarse black chest hair, a stomach thick with muscle, and a tattoo of barbed wire around his bicep. "Don't make me rescue you," he said.
It was early June, and cold. When Melanie blew her whistle and we all jumped in, the water hit me like a fist in the face. I thrashed to the surface, my ears ringing. My skin wanted to leap off my body, my body wanted to leap out of my mouth.
A couple people whooped and laughed, then Melanie blew the whistle again. Tim disappeared. Everyone else disappeared. I hung there, the only head still above water. Then I took the biggest breath I could and dove.
I was okay at first. Kicking blindly downward, I felt wired, euphoric. I was diving deep-deep. I was doing it.
Then I hit a layer of water so cold it was like I'd dropped through a hole into the Arctic. My hands went in first, then my arms. Before I knew it my whole body was in it, and I was panicking all over again. I lost control. I thrashed up to the surface, choking.
Melanie must have seen me come up too soon, but she didn't say anything. I floundered, trying to breathe, until Tim breached beside me.
"You get to the bottom?" he panted, wiping snot from his lip.
It was just a practice run; there was no kid lost in the lake.
"Sure," I gasped. "Yeah. No problem."
It was a dry summer, which meant cougars and coyotes came out of the mountains to drink, which meant giardia. Whole cabins of junior arsonists and petty thieves, sputtering shit in the woods. Then it was pinkeye. Everyone weeping like wax religious icons, an endless medieval torment. I dodged both those bullets, but when Tim's eyes puffed up I got pulled off quartermaster duty to be honorary counselor of his miniature psychos.
I had no choice, so I tossed Tim's polluted bedding out of his bunk and tried to speed-learn the kids' names. They were exactly as bad as I'd expected them to be.
I got them to bed and listened to forty-five minutes of farts and laughter. I hated them. They hated me. Finally I fell asleep.
Sometime later, I woke up with someone clutching my wrist in a cold, clammy grip. I scrabbled for my flashlight and lit up a kid named Neil Fawley, the cabin runt. I'd kind of overlooked him until then. He had bad asthma, the kind you had to take pills for, the kind that means you have to wear a medical alert bracelet. His camper sheet said he also had nightmares. I remembered Tim telling me Neil was at Wanderwell for breaking the windows of his father's real estate office.
"He's a douche," Neil muttered, in the bathroom. We were in there for a quiet powwow, away from the snoring and stink of the other kids. "He goes around the house every night and if it's not clean enough my mom has to pay dues."
"Sounds like a douche," I agreed. Shouty Phil liked to read articles by right-wing columnists aloud at breakfast. He called graphic novels "gaybooks" and threw them out if I left them around. Once when I was fourteen I walked between him and the mixed martial arts channel. He yanked me out of the way so hard he messed up my wrist, and it's never been the same since.
"I'd rather be here than at home anyway," Neil said. "I don't care if I never go home."
"You can do better than Wanderwell," I said. "You need to aim higher."
Neil just sat there fiddling with his medical bracelet, half-hidden in his pajama sleeve.
"Come on," I said. "If you stay here that just means the douchebag wins."
"My mom broke her jaw," Neil said. "She fell off the back porch and broke it in three places."
He was looking down at the bracelet, so I couldn't see his face. But I knew right away what he was saying. I was just seventeen years old that summer, maybe five or six years older than Neil. But I knew. Of course I knew. I knew because I was at Wanderwell too. Who falls off a porch and breaks their jaw?
But. I also knew that if I acknowledged what Neil was saying, I'd have to do something about it. I'd have to report Neil's dad to El Generalissimo, and probably be a part of the shitstorm that followed. And below that, the kind of reasoned self-interest layer, there was something darker, colder. If I said anything out loud, I might have to think about the stuff that went on in my own house, that had been going on since Shouty Phil first turned up with his heavy hands and his cell phone clipped to his braided leather belt. All the dark, slippery stuff that blurred the line between normal and not-normal, that I only had to handle for one more year before I was free.
I felt a black curl of resentment toward Neil, for dropping this shit on me. For sniffing out--like a goddamned dog, I thought--that invisible link that connects people like us, and for not having the decency to ignore it. For grabbing hold of it instead. For trying to use it to bear his weight, to clamber up out of the darkness I was struggling so hard to leave behind.
I wasn't even supposed to be a counselor. I was supposed to be bagging cream of wheat.
With one hand, I stopped him from twisting his silver bracelet.
"You should write her a get-well letter," I said. "Maybe during crafts tomorrow."
A few days later Tim's eyes cleared up and I was back on quartermaster duty, checking out backpacks and bows. I had my bunk in the loft above the store, I had my pencils and paper, I had a box of new nibs. It was all going fine until I lost my grip on the ladder to my bunk and landed on my bad wrist.
Nurse Marge said nothing was broken, but she wanted to keep me in the infirmary for a day or two. So that's where I was when Neil Fawley disappeared during group swim the next day.
He shouldn't have been in the deep end at all. He was ten years old. He had asthma. Nobody could figure out how it had happened. Melanie was a wreck. Even El Generalissimo seemed poleaxed, like maybe he gave a damn about the kid and not just the legal disaster.
Tim found him. He came up choking from his third dive to the bottom, dragging Neil by one arm. Ten years old, in blue swim trunks, with his medical bracelet still around his wrist. Covered in the mud and muck I'd been too scared to dive into. Deep-deep.
A few days later, after the service at the nondenominational rock, we had another dive drill. Strictly speaking, I could have sat out. I was just out of the infirmary, and El Generalissimo was in legal meetings in the city. But I didn't want to sit out.
It wasn't because of Neil, exactly. Treading water, waiting for Melanie's whistle, I didn't think about him at all. I thought about how cold I was, and how bored I was getting, drawing alone in my bunk. And how stupid Wanderwell seemed, six weeks in. The idea that you could take messed-up kids, send them away for some archery and knot-tying, and expect them to come out different somehow. In September all these kids had to go back to selfish, sadistic, asshole parents, or addict parents, or no parents at all. All the archery in the world wasn't going to change that.
"You okay?" Tim asked, adjusting his goggles. They were bright orange, with special non-fog lenses. He'd got them after diving for Neil. If anyone should have been on shore leave it was Tim, but there he was with his crazy black hair and his bad tattoo.
I said I was fine. Melanie whistled and we dove.
I was ready for it this time, the layer of icy water below the surface. I knew what it was. Only the top layer of water is warmed by the sun, agitated by swimmers and the wind. About seven or eight feet below there's a colder, denser layer that never sees light, that gets progressively darker and thicker and colder until it mixes almost indistinguishably with the soft, muddy lake bottom. It's nothing to be afraid of. It's just what's down there.
I made it farther that time. I hit the cold zone, got my whole body into it--and then an irrational terror seized me and I couldn't help it, I turned around. The surface was a faint glimmer. I kicked and pulled desperately, and there was a searing red-and-black moment when I knew I wasn't going to make it. I was going to struggle until my lungs gave out, and then I was going to drown.
I made it to the surface. I hung there, heaving for air. Tim was beside me, hauling in gasps--and then, unbelievably, he went down again. I took in the biggest lungful I could, and dove.
My heart drummed all through my body. My ears squealed. I watched the white glimmer of my arm disappear further and further into the dark--but I didn't feel bottom. Just frigid silt and grit. I thrashed back up, bursting for air.
At the surface, I couldn't catch my breath. Neil must have thought he'd come up again, but he didn't. He stayed down in the darkness too long, until it was too late.
I went straight down, kicking hard. My shoulders and thighs felt bruised. My arms ached. It was hard to keep my hands out. Even before I hit the cold layer, I knew I was too beat to go down all the way. I couldn't dive deep-deep. I didn't have the lungs for it. If there was ever another kid down there, I wouldn't be able to reach him.
I kept kicking. My ears squeezed and popped. My hands, then my arms, disappeared. The darkness closed over me.
Cold fingers passed through mine, latched, and held on.
I think I screamed into the water. I jerked back, but didn't jerk free. Instead I was yanked deeper. And I saw, I swear I saw, down in that darkness, a metallic silver flash.
I felt something even colder than the water, soft and yielding, climbing up my arm. My arm was sinking into the lake bottom, into the mud. I hauled back and felt a horrible tearing sensation, as if I'd pulled a fistful of rotten lake weed from its roots. I felt cold mud on my shoulder, then against my cheek. I saw a flicker of silver in the corner of my eye. Then a red spatter of lights that I knew, even then, were deadly. My heart was hammering through my eyes. I remember getting my feet beneath me, kicking into the mud, and feeling my heel connect with something not quite solid, something that gave like waterlogged wood.
Tim brought me up. Somehow he saw me through his orange goggles and dragged me to the surface. Melanie pumped black water out of me onto the dock. I spent two days in the hospital.
When they felt pretty sure I was going to live, they sent me home and I spent the rest of the summer with my mom and Shouty Phil. I expected Phil to make digs about me flunking out of summer camp, but he just ignored me. Which was fine.
They still had Beaver back then, the chocolate Lab Mom got when I was eight. I spent a lot of that summer lying on the basement floor with my head on Beaver's belly, listening to his heart beat. Listening to him breathe.
Wanderwell struggled on for another few years, but things kept going wrong. I kept an eye out, I read the newspapers. A kid fell off the ropes course and compound-fractured his leg; another kid ran away and made it to the highway, where he flagged down a pedophile trucker. People started finding other ways to rehabilitate their kids. Finally El Generalissimo sold the land to the state at a loss, and last I heard he was wearing a city sanitation worker's uniform.
Most of the Wanderwell staff have moved on with their lives: gone to college, taken jobs, had kids. Tim's gay, it turns out. Something about that amused me, once upon a time. Melanie's a mom, getting a Master's in something. They still send me emails from time to time, but I don't write back. There's not much to say.
If I did write to them, I wouldn't tell them about my job night-managing the Conoco station. I wouldn't tell them about the reams of drawings I've done over the years, some of them pencil, some of them stark black ink, none of them color, all stored in banker boxes under my bed in the basement of mom and Shouty Phil's house. I wouldn't tell them that sometimes I lie in bed and listen to Phil shout at my mother about her no-good freakazoid reject son. And Mom shouting back about whose fault that is.
That's all boring stuff.
If I thought they'd listen, I might tell them that Wanderwell may be gone, but the lake is still there. That if you look closely you can find the old road up to the campground. The dock's a mess, the shoreline's overgrown with cattails and salal. But Melanie's lifeguard station is still standing, and if you're careful you can climb up and sit in her old plastic chair. From there you can see straight down into the dark, shifting water beneath the diving board.
I'd tell them that if you're patient, if you wait long enough and if the angle of the light is right, you can see a silver flicker down there. Beckoning, elusive. Down in the deepest, blackest bottom of the lake. I've seen it plenty of times. I think about it a lot. But I haven't decided to dive for it yet.