Each one of us, four girls altogether, giggled as we crossed our hearts and hoped to die and promised to never tell on one another for what we were about to do. A silly dare, an adventure that we hoped we could get away with, had been proposed. There was nervous excitement and the expected trepidation, for this was not a sensible undertaking. After we found her dad’s bottle of peppermint schnapps in the hallway coat closet, behind a tumble of hats and mittens and other loose winter gear, we each took a few swigs. Every gulp of that frosty drink we choked down gave us the foolish motivation to venture outside the confines of the base gate in the dead of winter.
One of us asked the young military guard on duty, “Will you be sure to let us back on without our ID cards?” and he agreed, nodding his head and sharing a smirk the way adults do when they want kids to think they’re paying attention but they’re really not. We trudged past the checkpoint in our thick winter boots – moonboots, they were called – and listened to the snow crunch beneath our feet. Snow still came down on us in clumps, so thick we worried about losing our tracks before making it safely back home. Someone made a joke about Hansel and Gretel and the bag of bread we’d left back at the house. Another girl wondered out loud about the bears.
It was winter. The bears were asleep. But we were just kids.
The woods in Upper Michigan were dark and the afternoon sun was falling from the sky at an alarming speed. We stepped carefully over branches that had fallen victim to the weight of the snow and grabbed onto each other if any one of us began to slide down the hill. The grayish color of the cold ground matched that of the sky, so perhaps falling downhill was the only way to tell which was which.
When we finally reached the bottom of the tree-covered hill, there was nothing. Nothing but snow. The four of us walked closer to the openness, farther from the safety of the trees and the hill, far from the solid ground. Ahead of us was an immense landscape of undisturbed snow. Beneath us was a seemingly bottomless lake covered in a layer of ice. This was the dare, the adventure…
One girl began to cry and quietly went back to the hill. The three of us stayed together, silently encouraging each other to walk on, to see how far we could go out before the ice cracked. As we shuffled our heavy boots across the frozen lake, we held hands to create the illusion of safekeeping and a quick rescue. In the back of our minds were the horrifying images of one of us going in, falling through the false floor of ice, yet those pictures were rejected by our belief that bad things don’t happen to children.
“You guys, come back! Come back! It’s getting dark.”
She yelled to us from the hill, desperate to stop us from venturing too far out, beyond where it was safe. A couple of us were relieved to know that her anxiety could rescue us from this perilous idea that seemed so amusing only an hour earlier. The two of us returned to the hill, delicately stepping back into the footsteps we’d just made. That left one still on the lake. She refused to come back with us.
“Hey! We really need to get back home. What if they changed guards and the new guard won’t let us back on base? Plus, it’s going to be dark soon. C’mon! We gotta go!”
After a few minutes of coaxing, we finally convinced her to come back to the hill. The three of us already waiting on solid ground were comforted more and more with each step she took closer to us. Our smug arrogance had obviously begun to wear off and it was time to get home for dinner.
We watched her walk close enough to the hill and turned our backs to her to begin the strenuous climb back up. As if on cue, a deafening crack broke the silence in the woods followed by a muffled splash. The three of us on the hill turned to find our friend knee deep in the bitter sub-zero waters of the lake. We pulled her to solid ground and yelled at her…how could you be so stupid?
The walk home was quiet and emotionally uncomfortable, though only one of us suffered the physical pain of being chilled to the bone. Soaked in her boots and jeans up to the knees, she had an agonizing march back to the base.
Upon entering the gate, we reminded the guard of our earlier pact that he would allow us to return without our identification. He shook his head, confused, until he removed the mask that protected his face from the cold and we realized it wasn’t the same guard.
Nobody even knew we were out there.