When I was about six, there was quite a clan of children living in our neighborhood.
There were my three siblings, my three cousins, the two boys across the street, the two boys down the road, and a couple of other playmates that popped up here and there. Our summers were usually spent on very important projects. Once we decided to start a honey farm by picking all the flowers in the neighborhood and squeezing any liquid we could get out of them into a cardboard box we found at a construction site.
Because that is how honey is made.
We had to stop that when my aunt discovered an enormous pile of mangled petunia corpses in her garage.
After that, we orchestrated several enormous sessions of a game we called ‘Boys Versus Girls’, which had no real purpose besides antagonizing the other side. We skulked around, establishing home bases, doing reconnaissance and sending spybots to give us valuable data on our enemy’s plans. By ‘spybots’ I mean that we hid an open can of catfood in the boys’ base, and strapped a disposable camera to my cat using cellophane and tape. The cat, instead of honorably performing its duty, tore off the cellophane with her teeth, scratched my cousin Kelly, and went to sleep.
Boys Versus Girls ended with a series of well-calculated attacks involving dog poop and kitchen forks which so devastated troop morale that we considered the war a draw. After that, we resorted to making potions for several weeks.
The potions were less in the name of functionality and more in the name of experimental science. We had a number of interesting glass bottles with real corks that actually fit in the top, absolutely ideal for science-making. Our usual ingredients included leftover taco sauce and soy sauce, food coloring and the powder from packets of Top Ramen. After we made a potion, we would dare each other to drink it until finally someone decided to be the hero.
That game ended one night after I had bravely ingested a potion made of ketchup, expired deli turkey, and an overwhelming amount of cinnamon and nutmeg. Everything went okay until about midnight. I woke suddenly with the sense that I was about to be sick. I got halfway to my parent’s bedroom before I sprayed a chunky fog of vomit onto the carpet, walls, and ceiling of our hallway. The next morning when my grandpa brought over the carpet cleaner he craned his head inside to survey the damage. “Oookay,” he said, backing up slowly. “Good luck with that.”
So that was the end of potion-making.
I think our finest moment came on a hot day in July. My parents had gone somewhere with my sister Casey. They were only to be gone for a couple hours, so we were left under the watchful eye of my oldest sister, Sarah, who was given a package of Ghostbusters juice boxes as our only incentive to behave. She could administer these juice boxes whenever she chose, and wisely, she held the threat of not allowing them to us for as long as possible.
About ten minutes in to Sarah’s tenure as baby sitter, my cousins, brother, neighbors and I congregated in the backyard to discuss the unbearable heat situation. It was undoubtedly cooler inside the house, on that we could agree, but it was also a well-known fact that inside was boring and also Sarah was in there, and she controlled our juice box supply. Annoying her was inadvisable. We contemplated stealing the juice boxes before my brother struck on a genius idea.
“Let’s make a swimming pool,” he said.
We heartily agreed that a swimming pool was essentially a big hole filled with water, and we were all adept at making holes, so work on the swimming pool began. We all grabbed shovels and trowels and rakes (whatever we could get our hands on really) from our respective houses, and began the job. Within forty minutes, we had an impressive trench going. It was about three feet deep, a foot and a half wide, and four or five feet long. By then we were tired and hot and ready for some gratification. My brother Ben, having made himself the head engineer and director of operations, fetched the hose.
We watched as he turned it on full blast and began to fill our hole.
Instead of the crystal blue water of a swimming pool, though, the hole just filled with thin mud. Bits of roots and tiny stones burbled around the surface, and the water seemed to be seeping into the grass around our pool just as much as it got into the pool itself. The whole thing was a soggy, gooey mess. We stared at it for a moment as Ben turned off the hose and the water dribbled to a stop. Doubt began to set in. We suddenly were not sure that this was actually as great an idea as we thought it was.
“You know what?” I said finally. “I think we might get into trouble for this.”
My cousin Kelly nodded in agreement. She was wearing immaculate pink Keds and had refused to take part in the general digging, on account of the fact that her white skort might get ruined. She was backing away now with mounting terror.
“Well, maybe,” Ben said. “Probably not. It’s just like the pool that Albert has down the street. And it’s not so hard to fill in a hole. All we did was move dirt around. Mom and Dad won’t be mad about that.”
We were unconvinced. Adults often got upset over silly things like giant holes or trapping grasshoppers or taking apart the VCR.
Ben, sensing that we might be about to turn on him, took the only course of action he could. He kicked off his shoes and slid into the mud pit. For a second he dipped below the surface and then emerged, his white eyes gazing excitedly through a thick layer of sludge. He tried to float on his back, but the narrow pit didn’t allow him quite enough room.
“Come on, you guys,” he said.
That was all the rest of the kids needed. Brent, Scotty, Joel, Patrick, Evan and Charlie all slumped into the hole, immediately coating themselves in goop and shoving each other around, hooting and laughing. Kelly and I hung back. She was wrinkling her nose distastefully, and I was inclined to follow her lead, but I was hot. The mud looked cool and inviting, and Ben’s final argument had the ring of truth to it. Ben splashed at me, and I darted backwards.
“Staaaaahhhp!” I shrieked. “Don’t!”
“Stop don’t aaah waaah!” Ben cried in his tinny mimic voice. “If you’re already in trouble for digging a hole, you’re not going to be in any more trouble from swimming in it. Come on.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Come on,” Ben said.
“I…don’t know,” I replied.
“Come on,” Ben said, and splashed me again.
I couldn’t argue with that logic. I slipped my shoes off and toppled into the hole.
It was glorious. The water was cold and my feet sank into the mud on the bottom with the delicious feeling of muck splurging up between my toes. We were all packed in like sardines, so our swimming was really more of a slow rotation as we squeezed past each other, bobbing up and down and smearing as much mud on each other and ourselves as we could. This, we silently agreed, was probably our best idea ever.
And that’s when Sarah came out of the house.
It might have been the amount of laughing that summoned her, or maybe the eerie lack of slamming doors. Maybe she realized that we hadn’t bothered her about those juice boxes in nearly an hour, or maybe she had just realized that she didn’t know what we were doing, and that she probably should. In any case, Sarah came out the back door, swiveling her head around looking for us, and stopped dead as her eyes met the mud pit.
In her arms was a pallet of Ghostbusters juice boxes.
We in the pit immediately understood that there was little to no chance that we would ever understand what Ghostbusters Juice tasted like.
The only revenge that Sarah could think of, could comprehend at the moment that she came outside and found us packed shoulder-to-shoulder in a pit of filth, was to give us juice boxes in reverse order of who got into the pool first. Kelly got the first one, and then me, and then she started handing them to the boys who looked the most sorry. As she progressed through the ranks, her glares got more and more bitter, until she finally came upon Ben. We had all immediately named him as the ring leader. Sarah held his juice box slightly out of his reach, and stared at him, her eyes locked with his for what seemed like hours. Brent later swore that he could see the air between their eyes move, like the air on top of a car on a hot day, vibrating with the sheer force of fury that Sarah had in reserve. Finally, she lowered the juice box, which Ben accepted tentatively.
“I am going to tell Mom and Dad about this,” she said quietly. The threat hung dangerously in the air as she turned around and went back inside.
We were so petrified at that, those ten condemning words, that we only got back in the pit twice more that day.