HESTER'S POOL WAS ALSO FORBIDDEN IN CAL'S world, which was only one of the reasons it was irresistible.
The scoop of brown water, fed by the winding Antietam Creek and hidden in the thick woods, was supposed to be haunted by some weird Pilgrim girl who'd drowned in it way back whenever.
He'd heard his mother talk about a boy who'd drowned there when she'd been a kid, which in Mom Logic was the number one reason Cal was never allowed to swim there. The kid's ghost was supposed to be there, too, lurking under the water, just waiting to grab another kid's ankle and drag him down to the bottom so he'd have somebody to hang out with.
Cal had swum there twice that summer, giddy with fear and excitement. And both times he'd sworn he'd felt bony fingers brush over his ankle.
A dense army of cattails trooped along the edges, and around the slippery bank grew bunches of the wild orange lilies his mother liked. Fans of ferns climbed up the rocky slope, along with brambles of wild berries, which when ripe would stain the fingers a kind of reddish purple that looked a little like blood.
The last time they'd come, he'd seen a black snake slither its way up the slope, barely stirring the ferns.
Fox let out a shout, dumped his pack. In seconds he'd dragged off his shoes, his shirt, his jeans and was sailing over the water in a cannonball without a thought for snakes or ghosts or whatever else might be under that murky brown surface.
"Come on, you pussies!" After a slick surface dive, Fox bobbed around the pool like a seal.
Cal sat, untied his Converse All Stars, carefully tucked his socks inside them. While Fox continued to whoop and splash, he glanced over where Gage simply stood looking out over the water.
"You going in?"
Cal pulled off his shirt, folded it out of habit. "It's on the agenda. We can't cross it off unless we all do it."
"Yeah, yeah." But Gage only stood as Cal stripped down to his Fruit of the Looms.
"We have to all go in, dare the gods and stuff."
With a shrug, Gage toed off his shoes. "Go on, what are you, a homo? Want to watch me take my clothes off?"
"Gross." And slipping his glasses inside his left shoe, Cal sucked in breath, gave thanks his vision blurred, and jumped.
The water was a quick, cold shock.
Fox immediately spewed water in his face, fully blinding him, then stroked off toward the cattails before retaliation. Just when he'd managed to clear his myopic eyes, Gage jumped in and blinded him all over again.
"Sheesh, you guys!"
Gage's choppy dog paddle worked up the water, so Cal swam clear of the storm. Of the three, he was the best swimmer. Fox was fast, but he ran out of steam. And Gage, well, Gage sort of attacked the water like he was in a fight with it.
Cal worried-even as part of him thrilled at the idea-that he'd one day have to use the lifesaving techniques his dad had taught him in their aboveground pool to save Gage from drowning.
He was picturing it, and how Gage and Fox would stare at him with gratitude and admiration, when a hand grabbed his ankle and yanked him underwater.
Even though he knew it was Fox who pulled him down, Cal 's heart slammed into his throat as the water closed over his head. He floundered, forgetting all his training in that first instant of panic. Even as he managed to kick off the hold on his ankle and gather himself to push to the surface, he saw a movement to the left.
It-she-seemed to glide through the water toward him. Her hair streamed back from her white face, and her eyes were cave black. As her hand reached out, Cal opened his mouth to scream. Gulping in water, he clawed his way to the surface.
He could hear laughter all around him, tinny and echoing like the music out of the old transistor radio his father sometimes used. With terror biting inside his throat, he slapped and clawed his way to the edge of the pool.
"I saw her, I saw her, in the water, I saw her." He choked out the words while fighting to climb out.
She was coming for him, fast as a shark in his mind, and in his mind he saw her mouth open, and the teeth gleam sharp as knives.
"Get out! Get out of the water!" Panting, he crawled through the slippery weeds and rolling, saw his friends treading water. "She's in the water." He almost sobbed it, bellying over to fumble his glasses out of his shoe. "I saw her. Get out. Hurry up!"
"Oooh, the ghost! Help me, help me!" With a mock gurgle, Fox sank underwater.
Cal lurched to his feet, balled his hands into fists at his sides. Fury tangled with terror to have his voice lashing through the still summer air. "Get the fuck out."
The grin on Gage's face faded. Eyes narrowed on Cal, he gripped Fox by the arm when Fox surfaced laughing.
"We're getting out."
"Come on. He's just being spaz because I dunked him."
"He's not bullshitting."
The tone got through, or when he bothered to look, the expression on Cal 's face tripped a chord. Fox shot off toward the edge, spooked enough to send a couple of wary looks over his shoulder.
Gage followed, a careless dog paddle that made Cal think he was daring something to happen.
When his friends hauled themselves out, Cal sank back down to the ground. Drawing his knees up, he pressed his forehead to them and began to shake.
"Man." Dripping in his underwear, Fox shifted from foot to foot. "I just gave you a tug, and you freak out. We were just fooling around."
"I saw her."
Crouching, Fox shoved his sopping hair back from his face. "Dude, you can't see squat without those Coke bottles."
"Shut up, O'Dell." Gage squatted down. "What did you see, Cal?"
"Her. She had all this hair swimming around her, and her eyes, oh man, her eyes were black like the shark in Jaws. She had this long dress on, long sleeves and all, and she reached out like she was going to grab me-"
"With her bony fingers," Fox put in, falling well short of his target of disdain.
"They weren't bony." Cal lifted his head now, and behind the lenses his eyes were fierce and frightened. "I thought they would be, but she looked, all of her, looked just...real. Not like a ghost or a skeleton. Oh man, oh God, I saw her. I'm not making it up."
"Well Jee-sus." Fox crab-walked another foot away from the pond, then cursed breathlessly when he tore his forearm on berry thorns. "Shit, now I'm bleeding." Fox yanked a handful of weedy grass, swiped at the blood seeping from the scratches.
"Don't even think about it." Cal saw the way Gage was studying the water-that thoughtful, wonder-what'll-happen gleam in his eye. "Nobody's going in there. You don't swim well enough to try it anyway."
"How come you're the only one who saw her?"
"I don't know and I don't care. I just want to get away from here."
Cal leaped up, grabbed his pants. Before he could wiggle into them, he saw Gage from behind. "Holy cow. Your back is messed up bad."
"The old man got wasted last night. It's no big deal."
"Dude." Fox walked around to get a look. "That's gotta hurt."
"The water cooled it off."
"I've got my first aid kit-" Cal began, but Gage cut him off.
"I said no big deal." He grabbed his shirt, pulled it on. "If you two don't have the balls to go back in and see what happens, we might as well move on."
"I don't have the balls," Cal said in such a deadpan, Gage snorted out a laugh.
"Then put your pants on so I don't have to wonder what that is hanging between your legs."
Fox broke out the Little Debbies, and one of the six-pack of Coke he'd bought at the market. Because the incident in the pond and the welts on Gage's back were too important, they didn't speak of them. Instead, hair still dripping, they resumed the hike, gobbling snack cakes and sharing a can of warm soda.
But with Bon Jovi claiming they were halfway there, Cal thought of what he'd seen. Why had he been the only one? How had her face been so clear in the murky water, and with his glasses tucked in his shoe? How could he have seen her? With every step he took away from the pond, it was easier to convince himself he'd just imagined it.
Not that he'd ever, ever admit that maybe he'd just freaked out.
The heat dried his damp skin and brought on the sweat. It made him wonder how Gage could stand having his shirt clinging to his sore back. Because, man, those marks were all red and bumpy, and really had to hurt. He'd seen Gage after Old Man Turner had gone after him before, and it hadn't ever, ever been as bad as this. He wished Gage had let him put some salve on his back.
What if it got infected? What if he got blood poisoning, got all delirious or something when they were all the way to the Pagan Stone?
He'd have to send Fox for help, yeah, that's what he'd do-send Fox for help while he stayed with Gage and treated the wounds, got him to drink something so he didn't-what was it?-dehydrate.
Of course, all their butts would be in the sling when his dad had to come get them, but Gage would get better.
Maybe they'd put Gage's father in jail. Then what would happen? Would Gage have to go to an orphanage?
It was almost as scary to think about as the woman in the pond.
They stopped to rest, then sat in the shade to share one of Gage's stolen Marlboros. They always made Cal dizzy, but it was kind of nice to sit there in the trees with the water sliding over rocks behind them and a bunch of crazy birds calling out to each other.
"We could camp right here," Cal said half to himself.
"No way." Fox punched his shoulder. "We're turning ten at the Pagan Stone. No changing the plan. We'll be there in under an hour. Right, Gage?"
Gage stared up through the trees. "Yeah. We'd be moving faster if you guys hadn't brought so much shit with you."
"Didn't see you turn down a Little Debbie," Fox reminded him.
"Nobody turns down Little Debbies. Well..." He crushed out the cigarette, then planted a rock over the butt. "Saddle up, troops."
Nobody came here. Cal knew it wasn't true, knew when deer was in season these woods were hunted.
But it felt like nobody came here. The two other times he'd been talked into hiking all the way to the Pagan Stone he'd felt exactly the same. And both those times they'd started out early in the morning instead of afternoon. They'd been back out before two.
Now, according to his Timex, it was nearly four. Despite the snack cake, his stomach wanted to rumble. He wanted to stop again, to dig into what his mother had packed in the stupid basket.
But Gage was pushing on, anxious to get to the Pagan Stone.
The earth in the clearing had a scorched look about it, as if a fire had blown through the trees there and turned them all to ash. It was almost a perfect circle, ringed by oaks and locus and the bramble of wild berries. In its center was a single rock that jutted two feet out of the burned earth and flattened at the top like a small table.
Some said altar.
People, when they spoke of it at all, said the Pagan Stone was just a big rock that pushed out of the ground. Ground so colored because of minerals, or an underground stream, or maybe caves.
But others, who were usually more happy to talk about it, pointed to the original settlement of Hawkins Hollow and the night thirteen people met their doom, burned alive in that very clearing.
Witchcraft, some said, and others devil worship.
Another theory was that an inhospitable band of Indians had killed them, then burned the bodies.
But whatever the theory, the pale gray stone rose out of the soot-colored earth like a monument.
"We made it!" Fox dumped his pack and his bag to dash forward and do a dancing run around the rock. "Is this cool? Is this cool? Nobody knows where we are. And we've got all night to do anything we want."
"Anything we want in the middle of the woods," Cal added. Without a TV, or a refrigerator.
Fox threw back his head and let out a shout that echoed away. "See that? Nobody can hear us. We could be attacked by mutants or ninjas or space aliens, and nobody would hear us."
That, Cal realized, didn't make his stomach feel any steadier. "We need to get wood for a campfire."
"The Boy Scout's right," Gage decided. "You guys find some wood. I'll go put the beer and the Coke in the stream. Cool off the cans."
In his tidy way, Cal organized the campsite first. Food in one area, clothes in another, tools in another still. With his Scout knife and compass in his pocket, he set off to gather twigs and small branches. The brambles nipped and scratched as he picked his way through them. With his arms loaded, he didn't notice a few drops of his blood drip onto the ground at the edge of the circle.
Or the way the blood sizzled, smoked, then was sucked into that scarred earth.
Fox set the boom box on the rock, so they set up camp with Madonna and U2 and the Boss. Following Cal 's advice, they built the fire, but didn't set it to light while they had the sun.
Sweaty and filthy, they sat on the ground and tore into the picnic basket with grubby hands and huge appetites. As the food, the familiar flavors filled his belly and soothed his system, Cal decided it had been worth hauling the basket for a couple of hours.
Replete, they stretched out on their backs, faces to the sky.
"Do you really think all those people died right here?" Gage wondered.
"There are books about it in the library," Cal told him. "About a fire of, like, 'unknown origin' breaking out and these people burned up."
"Kind of a weird place for them to be."
Gage only grunted at that.
"My mom said how the first white people to settle here were Puritans." Fox blew a huge pink bubble with the Bazooka he'd bought at the market. "A sort of radical Puritan or something. How they came over here looking for religious freedom, but really only meant it was free if it was, you know, their way. Mom says lots of people are like that about religion. I don't get it."
Gage thought he knew, or knew part. "A lot of people are mean, and even if they're not, a lot more people think they're better than you." He saw it all the time, in the way people looked at him.
"But do you think they were witches, and the people from the Hollow back then burned them at the stake or something?" Fox rolled over on his belly. "My mom says that being a witch is like a religion, too."
"Your mom's whacked."
Because it was Gage, and because it was said jokingly, Fox grinned. "We're all whacked."
"I say this calls for a beer." Gage pushed up. "We'll share one, let the others get colder." As Gage walked off to the stream, Cal and Fox exchanged looks.
"You ever had beer before?" Cal wanted to know.
"Are you kidding? I can only have Coke on special occasions. What if we get drunk and pass out or something?"
"My dad drinks beer sometimes. He doesn't, I don't think."
They went quiet when Gage walked back with the dripping can. "Okay. This is to, you know, celebrate that we're going to stop being kids at midnight."
"Maybe we shouldn't drink it until midnight," Cal supposed.
"We'll have the second one after. It's like...it's like a ritual."
The sound of the top popping was loud in the quiet woods, a quick crack, almost as shocking to Cal as a gunshot might have been. He smelled the beer immediately, and it struck him as a sour smell. He wondered if it tasted the same.
Gage held the beer up in one hand, high, as if he gripped the hilt of a sword. Then he lowered it, took a long, deep gulp from the can.
He didn't quite mask the reaction, a closing in of his face as if he'd swallowed something strange and unpleasant. His cheeks flushed as he let out a short, gasping breath.
"It's still pretty warm but it..." He coughed once. "It hits the spot. Now you."
He passed the can to Fox. With a shrug, Fox took the can, mirrored Gage's move. Everyone knew if there was anything close to a dare, Fox would jump at it. "Ugh. It tastes like piss."
"You been drinking piss lately?"
Fox snorted at Gage's question and passed the can to Cal. "Your turn."
Cal studied the can. It wasn't like a sip of beer would kill him or anything. So he sucked in a breath and swallowed some down.
It made his stomach curl and his eyes water. He shoved the can back at Gage. "It does taste like piss."
"I guess people don't drink it for how it tastes. It's how it makes you feel." Gage took another sip, because he wanted to know how it made him feel.
They sat cross-legged in the circular clearing, knees bumping, passing the can from hand to hand.
Cal 's stomach pitched, but it didn't feel sick, not exactly. His head pitched, too, but it felt sort of goofy and fun. And the beer made his bladder full. When he stood, the whole world pitched and made him laugh helplessly as he staggered toward a tree.
He unzipped, aimed toward the tree but the tree kept moving.
Fox was struggling to light one of the cigarettes when Cal stumbled back. They passed that around the circle as well until Cal 's almost ten-year-old stomach revolted. He crawled off to sick it all up, crawled back, and just lay flat, closing his eyes and willing the world to go still again.
He felt as if he were once again swimming in the pond, and being slowly pulled under.
When he surfaced again it was nearly dusk.
He eased up, hoping he wouldn't be sick again. He felt a little hollow inside-belly and head-but not like he was going to puke. He saw Fox curled against the stone, sleeping. He crawled over on all fours for the thermos and as he washed the sick and beer out of his throat, he was never so grateful for his mother and her lemonade.
Steadier, he rubbed his fingers on his eyes under his glasses, then spotted Gage sitting, staring at the tented wood of the campfire they'd yet to light.
With a wan smile, Cal scooted over.
"I don't know how to light this thing. I figured it was about time to, but I needed a Boy Scout."
Cal took the book of matches Gage handed him, and set fire to several spots on the pile of dried leaves he'd arranged under the wood. "That should do it. Wind's pretty still, and there's nothing to catch in the clearing. We can keep feeding it when we need to, and just make sure we bury it before we go tomorrow."
"Smokey the Bear. You all right?"
"Yeah. I guess I threw most everything up."
"I shouldn't have brought the beer."
Cal lifted a shoulder, glanced toward Fox. "We're okay, and now we won't have to wonder what it tastes like. We know it tastes like piss."
Gage laughed a little. "It didn't make me feel mean." He picked up a stick, poked at the little flames. "I wanted to know if it would, and I figured I could try it with you and Fox. You're my best friends, so I could try it with you and see if it made me feel mean."
"How did it make you feel?"
"It made my head hurt. It still does a little. I didn't get sick like you, but I sorta wanted to. I went and got one of the Cokes and drank that. It felt better then. Why does he drink so goddamn much if it makes him feel like that?"
"I don't know."
Gage dropped his head on his knees. "He was crying when he went after me last night. Blubbering and crying the whole time he used the belt on me. Why would anybody want to feel like that?"
Careful to avoid the welts on Gage's back, Cal draped an arm over his shoulders. He wished he knew what to say.
"Soon as I'm old enough I'm getting out. Join the army maybe, or get a job on a freighter, maybe an oil rig."
Gage's eyes gleamed when he lifted his head, and Cal looked away because he knew the shine was tears. "You can come stay with us when you need to."
"It'd just be worse when I went back. But I'm going to be ten in a few hours. And in a few years I'll be as big as he is. Bigger maybe. I won't let him come after me then. I won't let him hit me. Screw it." Gage rubbed his face. "Let's wake Fox up. Nobody sleeps tonight."
Fox moaned and grumbled, and he got himself up to pee and fetch a cool Coke from the stream. They shared it with another round of Little Debbies. And, at last, the copy of Penthouse.
Cal had seen naked breasts before. You could see them in the National Geographic in the library, if you knew where to look.
But these were different.
"Hey guys, did you ever think about doing it?" Cal asked.
"Who doesn't?" they both replied.
"Whoever does it first has to tell the other two everything. All about how it feels," Cal continued. "And how you did it, and what she does. Everything. I call for an oath."
A call for an oath was sacred. Gage spat on the back of his hand, held it out. Fox slapped his palm on, spat on the back of his hand, and Cal completed the contact.
"And so we swear," they said together.
They sat around the fire as the stars came out, and deep in the woods an owl hooted its night call.
The long, sweaty hike, ghostly apparitions, and beer puke were forgotten.
"We should do this every year on our birthday," Cal decided. "Even when we're old. Like thirty or something. The three of us should come here."
"Drink beer and look at pictures of naked girls," Fox added. "I call for-"
"Don't." Gage spoke sharply. "I can't swear. I don't know where I'm going to go, but it'll be somewhere else. I don't know if I'll ever come back."
"Then we'll go where you are, when we can. We're always going to be best friends." Nothing would change that, Cal thought, and took his own, personal oath on it. Nothing ever could. He looked at his watch. "It's going to be midnight soon. I have an idea."
He took out his Boy Scout knife and, opening the blade, held it in the fire.
"What's up?" Fox demanded.
"I'm sterilizing it. Like, ah, purifying it." It got so hot he had to pull back, blow on his fingers. "It's like Gage said about ritual and stuff. Ten years is a decade. We've known each other almost the whole time. We were born on the same day. It makes us...different," he said, searching for words he wasn't quite sure of. "Like special, I guess. We're best friends. We're like brothers."
Gage looked at the knife, then into Cal 's face. "Blood brothers."
"Cool." Already committed, Fox held out his hand.
"At midnight," Cal said. "We should do it at midnight, and we should have some words to say."
"We'll swear an oath," Gage said. "That we mix our blood, um, three into one? Something like that. In loyalty."
"That's good. Write it down, Cal."
Cal dug pencil and paper out of his pack. "We'll write words down, and say them together. Then we'll do the cut and put our wrists together. I've got Band-Aids for after if we need them."
Cal wrote the words with his Number Two pencil on the blue lined paper, crossing out when they changed their minds.
Fox added more wood to the fire so that the flames crackled as they stood by the Pagan Stone.
At moments to midnight, they stood, three young boys with faces lit by fire and starlight. At Gage's nod, they spoke together in voices solemn and achingly young.
"We were born ten years ago, on the same night, at the same time, in the same year. We are brothers. At the Pagan Stone we swear an oath of loyalty and truth and brotherhood. We mix our blood."
Cal sucked in a breath and geared up the courage to run the knife across his wrist first. "Ouch."
"We mix our blood." Fox gritted his teeth as Cal cut his wrist.
"We mix our blood." And Gage stood unflinching as the knife drew over his flesh.
"Three into one, and one for the three."
Cal held his arm out. Fox, then Gage pressed their scored wrists down to his. "Brothers in spirit, in mind. Brothers in blood for all time."
As they stood, clouds shivered over the fat moon, misted over the bright stars. Their mixed blood dripped and fell onto the burnt ground.
The wind exploded with a voice like a raging scream. The little campfire spewed up flame in a spearing tower. The three of them were lifted off their feet as if a hand gripped them, tossed them. Light burst as if the stars had shattered.
As he opened his mouth to shout, Cal felt something shove inside him, hot and strong, to smother his lungs, to squeeze his heart in a stunning agony of pain.
The light shut off. In the thick dark blew an icy cold that numbed his skin. The sound the wind made now was like an animal, like a monster that only lived inside books. Beneath him the ground shook, heaving him back as he tried to crawl away.
And something came out of that icy dark, out of that quaking ground. Something huge and horrible.
Eyes bloodred and full of...hunger. It looked at him. And when it smiled, its teeth glittered like silver swords.
He thought he died, and that it took him in, in one gulp.
But when he came to himself again, he could hear his own heart. He could hear the shouts and calls of his friends.
"Jesus, Jesus, what was that? Did you see?" Fox called out in a voice thin as a reed. "Gage, God, your nose is bleeding."
"So's yours. Something... Cal. God, Cal."
Cal lay where he was, flat on his back. He felt the wet warmth of blood on his face. He was too numb to be frightened by it. "I can't see." He croaked out a weak whisper. "I can't see."
"Your glasses are broken." Face filthy with soot and blood, Fox crawled to him. "One of the lenses is cracked. Dude, your mom's going to kill you."
"Broken." Shaking, Cal reached up to pull off his glasses.
"Something. Something was here." Gage gripped Cal 's shoulder. "I felt something happen, after everything went crazy, I felt something happen inside me. Then...did you see it? Did you see that thing?"
"I saw its eyes," Fox said, and his teeth chattered. "We need to get out of here. We need to get out."
"Where?" Gage demanded. Though his breath still wheezed, he grabbed Cal 's knife from the ground, gripped it. "We don't know where it went. Was it some kind of bear? Was it-"
"It wasn't a bear." Cal spoke calmly now. "It was what's been here, in this place, a long time. I can see...I can see it. It looked like a man once, when it wanted. But it wasn't."
"Man, you hit your head."
Cal turned his eyes on Fox, and the irises were nearly black. "I can see it, and the other." He opened the hand of the wrist he'd cut. In the palm was a chunk of a green stone spotted with red. "His."
Fox opened his hand, and Gage his. In each was an identical third of the stone. "What is it?" Gage whispered. "Where the hell did it come from?"
"I don't know, but it's ours now. Uh, one into three, three into one. I think we let something out. And something came with it. Something bad. I can see."
He closed his eyes a moment, then opened them to look at his friends. "I can see, but not with my glasses. I can see without them. It's not blurry. I can see without my glasses."
"Wait." Trembling, Gage pulled up his shirt, turned his back.
"Man, they're gone." Fox reached out to touch his fingers to Gage's unmarred back. "The welts. They're gone. And..." He held out his wrist where the shallow cut was already healing. "Holy cow, are we like superheroes now?"
"It's a demon," Cal said. "And we let it out."
"Shit." Gage stared off into the dark woods. "Happy goddamn birthday to us."