Camp Unterlaken wasn’t for everybody. Kids who came expecting a safe and cushy woodland experience barely lasted a week. I mean, you could get splinters from just about any surface, the mosquitoes could eat you alive, and the water in the lake was always, always freezing.
But my friends and I went back every summer. We treated Unterlaken’s rustic roughness like a badge of honor. Proof of our toughness in a world of bubble-wrapped jungle gyms and participation trophies. So when other kids would come back to school in the fall with pictures from their fancy summer trips to Europe or those Mexican pyramids where they did human sacrifices, I’d show them my wicked rope burn from tetherball and watch their eyes go wide. Or I’d tell them how, on my birthday, the counselors picked me up and carried me around the cafeteria, while everybody went: “Throw him in the lake! Throw him in the lake! We won’t shut up ‘til you throw him in the lake!” Then they carried me out to the dock and tossed me in the cold water, and everybody cheered. Then I’d get hot chocolate. The counselors did it to all birthday kids, like me and like Andrew Ready, who was in my cabin and whose birthday was two days before mine.
I was standing in the canteen line with Andrew right after he got dunked. He was still shaking from excitement (or hypothermia) and going on about the heating coils in the lake. Not that there were any — it was just a stupid rumor they started to trick kids into the freezing water during mandatory swim lessons. Supposedly, the “heating coils” were “motion activated,” so we had to get in and wiggle around before the lake would warm up. Most of us knew it was BS, but some of the more gullible kids treated it like a big mystery.
“Seriously, Jake,” said Andrew as we waited in line. “It was like, metal and circular and flat. I hit it with my foot, but couldn’t see because the water’s so murky.”
I ignored Andrew and concentrated on selecting my candy for the week. The camp food was okay, but if you wanted a Snickers or something good like that, you had to wait your cabin’s turn for the canteen.
“Frozen M&Ms, please,” I said, slapping my crumpled dollar on the counter.
Becky Landers snatched it up with a smile as bright as the Fourth of July.
“Coming right up, Jake n’ Bake,” she said as she disappeared below the counter.
Now there was a real mystery. Like, how did Becky come up with such awesome nicknames? Or how come her freckles kept moving around, no matter how hard I tried to memorize them? And how could she crush a softball or throw a Frisbee so far, while keeping her purple nail polish perfect even in the middle of Off-The-Grid, Maine? Not that I expected to solve any of these mysteries. After all, Becky had five years and six inches on me.
Becky returned with the bag of M&Ms, but yanked it back as I reached for it.
“Isn’t there something you want to say?” she asked.
I tilted my head stupidly like a puppy. What would a kid like me have to say to Wonder Woman?
“Oh,” I said finally. “Thank you.”
“I like ‘em cold too,” she said with a wink, and handed me the bag of rock hard chocolate. As I grabbed it, my thumb brushed up against the smooth nail polish on hers. I might as well have stuck it in an electric outlet.
I stumbled away in a daze and wandered as far as the archery range. There, I plunked down to crunch on my M&Ms and watch the would-be Robin Hoods howl in pain whenever the bowstrings smacked them in the forearms. One of the younger archers, Abby Something, gave up in a huff and came to sit beside me. I gave her some of my M&Ms, which made her happy again.
At night, if you had to whiz, you just ducked out of your cabin and found a tree. Really you were supposed go all the way to the toilets, but it’s the woods, right?
I was heading back to my bunk when I heard a voice coming from the docks.
“Almost ready,” it said. “Make sure to bury them deep.” It almost sounded like Becky Landers.
I sneaked my way toward the docks, avoiding the path so that Night Patrol wouldn’t catch me breaking curfew. Sure enough, in the swimming area there was Becky with a bunch of other counselors. Girls and guys.
Were they skinny dipping? I got fidgety at the thought, but then I saw that, no, they had swimsuits. And they were diving. Each one stayed under the water a good long while, and when they came up they dropped something onto the dock. Something circular and flat.
It couldn’t be — the heating coils were a stupid rumor. No one can heat a whole lake!
I crept closer. Becky was picking up each object and holding it close to her face, like she was whispering to it. Then she’d toss it back to one of the counselors in the water.
I wanted to stay longer, but just then I saw a flashlight coming from the other direction. I didn’t want to get caught, or they’d make me swim laps. Come to think of it, most of the punishments, like the pranks, ended up with kids in lake.
I hustled back to my bunk.
“You were dreaming, dude,” said Randy Kimmelman at lunch the next day between tomato soup-coated bites of grilled cheese.
“Nuh-uh!” I shot back, not entirely confident that he was wrong.
“See, you guys!” said Andrew. “They gotta heat the water up, because the lake is, like, glacial. And this kid froze to death once, and they had a court case, and the judge said they had to put heating coils in.”
A.J. Kaplan, who no one liked, leaned in and asked, “Do you think there’s dinosaurs frozen under there?”
Everybody groaned and turned to debating who’d win between a zombie squid and robot shark, but I stopped listening.
Instead, I was watching Becky at the cafeteria counter where she was spooning ketchup-colored soup into a line of bowls. She caught me looking and, to my astonishment, smiled right at me. Even in the din of the nosy mess hall, among the clatter of plates, and the unshushed screeches of over-sugared children, I could hear my own heartbeat.
After lunch, I had clean-up duty, but my mind kept drifting to the night before. To Becky in her swimsuit, and the things they were putting in the lake. What else could they be if not heating coils? Maybe Andrew had actually felt one.
There was only one way to find out, so I made for the door.
“You going somewhere with those spoons?”
I froze. It was Becky.
She pointed to my hand, where I saw that I was still clutching a fistful of used silverware crusted with cheese and tomato slop.
“Oh, I…uh…guess I wasn’t thinking.”
“No prob, Bob!” she said as she leaned down and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Just go toss them in the dirty bin, ‘k?”
I made to leave but her firm grip held me in place. She was still smiling, but her eyes were steady.
“And don’t even think about sneaking out tonight. Got it, Jake the Snake?”
She then squeezed my shoulder so hard I winced. I nodded so she’d let me go.
That night I had to pee worse than ever. But I stayed in my sleeping bag, squirming like a worm on a hook, as A.J. snored in the bunk below me.
Tomorrow would be my birthday, and I’d get thrown in the lake. Everybody would be watching. I imagined diving down and coming back up with a warm coil. I’d be an Unterlaken legend.
The next day it rained. And not a pleasant summer drizzle that just dampens your towel on the line and makes Frisbees harder to catch. This was a monsoon. Rivers flowed down the pathways between the cabins and, even indoors, the air felt charged with muggy electricity.
They announced over the loudspeaker that all activities were cancelled for the day, and that the campers had to stay in their cabins. I wasn’t getting thrown in the lake after all.
Our cabin counselor Woody ran out into the rain below a plastic tarp to get our breakfasts from the cafeteria. He returned, soaked to the bone, with an armload of oranges and single-serving cereals we ate dry, straight from the box. I went for Frosted Flakes, as usual, and tossed them in my mouth one by one, like they were townspeople in a Godzilla movie.
After we ate, someone broke out a deck of cards, and we played Egyptian Rat-Screw as the rain grew heavier and the cabin creaked and groaned. I was distracted thinking about the heating coils, so I missed all the best slaps. Plus, my shoulder still hurt from where Becky had squeezed it.
Just as everyone started to go stir crazy — Randy and A.J. both slapped the card pile at exact same time and almost got into a fight over the length and grossness of A.J.’s fingernails — Woody got a call on his heavy black Walkie-Talkie. He plugged his ear and listened to a string of muffled buzzes. When they stopped, Woody clicked off the device with a pip, and turned to us.
“Rain gear!” he shouted.
Within the hour, all the campers had gathered in Shafrin Hall, and found spots on mats next to their friends. We all tossed our rain stuff in a huge wet pile in the corner, and if there was a plan for getting each kid back his or her own jacket, I couldn’t figure it out.
Some of the kitchen guys wheeled around carts heaped high with bag lunches.
“We got tuna and PB and J!” one of them called. “Raise your hand if you want tuna.” I did.
Shafrin Hall was where we put on the talent show at the end of the summer, and where they set up games and stuff for carnival night. All along the walls hung wooden boards with drawings and counselor signatures from every year the camp had been open, going all the way back to 1963. There was one I liked from ‘74 that had a funny old guy in a blue suit waterskiing and holding up two peace signs. Behind him trailed a banner with the Unterlaken motto: Live This Summer Like It’s Your Last. All the boards had it.
I didn’t know if it was the tuna, or the mildewy smell of the floor mats, or the huge crowd of campers screaming and laughing and farting, but my stomach felt uneasy. Something big was about to happen.
That’s when the chanting started.
It was only a few kids at first, but it spread quickly: “Mo-vie! Mo-vie! Mo-vie!”
Even I joined in, forgetting for the moment about the heating coils and that everyone had forgot my birthday.
They rolled out the projection screen behind Marla, one of the girls’ counselors, who raised her hand and put a finger to her lips. She stood there like that, slowly twisting back and forth like one of those oscillating fans until everyone quieted down.
“Ok, Unterlakeners!” she announced over the dying whispers. “Our movie this special rainy day is…” she paused so we could all do a drumroll on the floor. “The Princess Bride!”
There were cheers and groans. The counselors seemed more excited than the kids.
“Remember to be respectful,” said Marla. “And if you have to use the bathroom, just raise your hand, okay? Enjoy!”
The lights came down, and we started watching. There were still some boos, but they stopped after the first part with the kid and the grandpa. Soon the only sound competing with the movie was the rain, which was tapping at the walls and windows like it wanted to come in.
It was during the part where Princess Buttercup escapes into the water and gets attacked by the Shrieking Eels that I started thinking again about the lake. The docks and swimming area would be empty now, I realized.
I knew I was supposed to stay in the hall, watch the movie, and finish my sandwich. But I’d already seen Princess Bride a million times. And the soggy clump of bread, mayo, and fish made my stomach turn.
This wasn’t the birthday I wanted.
I wanted the counselors to carry me around and throw me in the lake as everybody sang and cheered. At least that’s almost like a real party, which I never got, because my parents sent me to Unterlaken every year while they went on vacation. And I wanted to dig up the heating coils and show everybody, so I’d have the camp story to trump all camp stories. Maybe then Becky would see that I wasn’t just another camper to smile at, then boss around.
I raised my hand and Marla gave me a nod to go to the bathroom. It was around the corner and away from everyone, next to a backdoor leading outside.
The walk to the docks was miserable, with the water on the path rushing over my ankles. I slipped and hit my knee hard on the ground, and said Shit, but no one was around to hear. Which was good, because I was probably in enough trouble already.
By the time I got there, it was pouring so hard I could barely see the end of the dock. A figure stood on the edge, like a shadow half-hidden among the raindrops. I knew right away who it was.
As I headed carefully down the slippery dock, I saw that, instead of her usual jean shorts and loose tank top, Becky was wearing a long white robe, which was soaked from the rain. I don’t think she was wearing anything underneath.
It didn’t seem to bother Becky one bit when I came and stood beside her. In fact, she looked happy to see me. More than happy. With her too-wide smile and tender eyes she looked…relieved.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Witnessing a birth,” she said like she expected me to understand.
“Isn’t it dangerous to be out here in the storm?”
A laugh broke from the back of her throat and came out ragged and sort of mean. It was a laugh you’d give a stupid kid for asking about monsters under the bed. Instead of answering, Becky purred and turned her face up to the sky to let the rain smack against it. She was being weird, and I didn’t like it. I wanted to run back to the lodge and see Inigo and Westley sword fight. But I stayed.
“What were you doing here the other night?” I asked. “Are there really heating coils in the water?”
Becky laughed again and wiped her face. Her long arm snaked itself around my shoulder, and she pressed me to her side so that I could feel her body through the wet robe.
“Not exactly,” she said, without letting me go. “I guess you could call them feeding coils. They store energy from movement in the water. It’s taken more than fifty years, but they’re finally ready…” she trailed off when she saw my confused face.
I didn’t know what to say, so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind.
“It’s my birthday.”
Becky gasped. “How perfect! It’s a sign.”
“Of what?” I asked. “And what about the coils? I want to know.”
“You will. Just watch.”
I looked out at the gloomy water, which was bubbling and alive with the fat droplets of rain that pounded it from above. The air smelled clean and new, and as I breathed it in, I felt a tingling in my nose, like when you’re about to cry.
Then lightning struck the lake.
I’d never seen it so close before. Not even fifty yards away flashed a thick pillar of blue light. It was as loud as a bomb going off in my ears.
“Jesus Christ!” I yelled, the wide bolt still burning in my vision.
“I can’t decide if you’re right, Jake o’ Lantern. Or really, really wrong.”
Becky turned me to look me in the eyes. Hers were blue and raw, like she’d been crying. She stroked the back of my soaked hair, which sent a tingle down my spine and made me feel uncomfortable.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said. “I really am. When the others chose me as the first sacrifice, I was so honored. But now…” She let out a deep sigh. “I don’t think I can do it. I want to see the new world, not just usher it in. But she won’t rise without a proper welcome. And someone has to do it.”
I didn’t like the way Becky was looking at me. “I think I should go back,” I said.
But Becky just shook her head. “It’s super awesome that you showed up, Jake in the Box. You’re really doing me — everyone — a huge favor.”
Before I could say anything else, Becky leaned down and kissed me. It stung, which was weird, but then I realized it was just the static pop jumping from her lip to mine. The kiss lasted only a split second, like something she’d give a baby brother.
“Happy birthday,” said Becky.
She then dug her purple fingers into my sides and hurled me into the lake.
This wasn’t like before. It wasn’t a friendly prank where you just splash down a few feet away.
Becky skipped me like a stone.
I knew she was strong, but this was impossible. I must have bounced at least twice before I landed, far beyond the swimming area and almost to the middle of the lake where the pontoon boats go. Where the lightning struck.
Water was all around me, and I clawed and kicked for an eternity before I was rightside up with my head in the air. Even then there was water in my lungs, and I coughed and gasped and coughed again. I was breathing in and out so fast that my bottom lip sounded like a helicopter. So hard that my chest hurt.
I was scared and crying. Why did Becky throw me in? And how? What if the lightning struck again and I got electrocuted?
Everything was wrong. Even the water was too warm. Almost like a bath. And it smelled funny — like rotten eggs or the bathroom after my uncle Jerry.
This was unfair. All of it was unfair and stupid, and I didn’t understand why Becky would pick on me. I would tell my dad, who was a lawyer, and he would sue Unterlaken. I’d never go back, and just stay home all summer and watch TV on the carpet with my dog Lambchop, who was getting old, but still liked to wrestle sometimes. I’d tell everybody how cursed this camp was, and no one would go, because they’d close it.
I tried to slow my breathing and tread water liked I’d learned — arms swing side-to-side, legs scissor.
Slowly, I started to calm down. It would be fine, I knew. Weird stuff happened at Unterlaken, but nothing too bad. It wasn’t that far back to the dock. I could totally swim it. I was a good swimmer.
And then this would be one of those dumb camp stories that people tell. Like Backwoods Jones, who lives in the abandoned shed behind the ropes course and chops up kids with a chainsaw. Or that kid in Vermont who died from a peanut. Except my story would be true.
I began to swim back. I’d tell everybody about Becky. About how weird and mean she was, and probably on steroids. Then she’d go to jail. I just had to make it back to land.
Then something grabbed my foot from below. Then my other foot. And before I could even gasp, it pulled me under, and a thick, wriggling mass of muscle slid all over my body, like giant tentacles.
I just needed to wiggle out and come back with army guys, and they’d kill this thing, which was now coiled around me so tight.
Deeper and deeper it pulled me.
My last thoughts weren’t about my parents or my friends. They weren’t about Unterlaken or Becky Landers, or all the campers in Shafrin Hall and what would happen to them.
All I could think about was the water.
It had gotten so hot.