The road went on longer than prior adventures dictated it should. Disappearing required predictable space and time, they’d found: the last street lamp on a wooded road announced an immediate narrowing. A half-mile more and asphalt turned to sand. Farther—another two minutes, max—and the path would grow unpassable. Potholes and puddles and fallen trees would bar the way. Joking to conceal their relief, they would turn the car around. They would return.
South Jersey’s Pine Barrens spanned over one million acres of cranberry bogs and disused furnaces. From the late 1700s to the middle of the following century, its forges had shipped bog iron (notable for both its high quantity and its low quality) to markets in Philadelphia and New York City. Towns had grown and thrived and died in a decade. Other towns—like Southampton, Shamong—had endured.
The boys did not know this history, not that night: all they knew was of the absence that had come after. Mobsters had buried mobsters. Devils had multiplied and terrorized before returning to the ground once more. These and other legends: ghost towns whose populations had pulled Roanokes of their own. Backwoods cabins whose respective owners lived on in their respective cellars’ womblike darks. Colonies of incestuous racists. These they knew. These were the Pine Barrens, wherein weirdness and mystery abounded. And on this night, as they had spent so many nights before, the boys were on a quest for a story of their own.
But the road did not end. Not for mile after mile. Until, at last, they saw light up ahead. A golden glow pooled among the ruts in the sand. The eyes of some small nocturnal mammal—opossum, raccoon—blinked in and out of the headlights’ beams. They sensed the sudden openness to the night, the man-made space. The boy driving did not want to stop, but the other three in the car wanted him to stop. So he stopped.
Research facility. Or some shit. A prison.
One of you fuckers want to check Google Maps?
I’m not getting service.
That’s barbed wire.
We’re in the asshole of fucking nowhere.
I’m pretty sure there’s a mental hospital—
Why the fuck—
I don’t know, dude. I’m as lost as you.
The boy driving did not say this: Hey, guys. I’m tired. It’s late. Why are we out here in the first place? Let’s go home. Smoke. I don’t know. Play some Skyrim. I don’t know.
Instead, he turned off the car. He joined them outside. He did not lock the doors behind him. He did not know if this was a mistake; slasher flicks presented compelling cases both ways.
One of the other boys was approaching the fence. The boy who drove wanted to warn him not to touch the wire, that there was a chance it was electrified. It was not.
After a moment, he joined the other boys. He wrapped his fingers around the cool, rusted links. He strained his eyes.
It’s like a lab or some shit.
You see The Thing?
Sounds like something the Thing would say.
I’m just saying—
There might be, like, a guard, or—
There was a moon, of course. A great golden rotten fruit tossed with disgust into the sky. But it was not full, and the Thing was not a werewolf; it was unclear what joke, if any, the boy who’d howled was trying to make. But they laughed as they stepped back from the fence and piled back into the car. The lab/prison/asylum had stayed silent and still. Nothing had moved among its low white buildings. A light had not even blinked.
They drove on. The boy drove on. Lake Oswego lay ahead—a blue hole, according to one of the other boys. One of the Pine Barrens’ abandoned mines. And/or a portal to Hell. And/or a summer camp. Earlier, they’d remained undecided. All they’d been certain of inside Arnold’s Diner was that there was a gap in the map marked Lake Oswego, that it was only some ten miles away. Down a long, lonely road. And also this: that it was the summer before their senior year. They had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do, no one else to be. The boy who had driven them there would drive them again. He would protest, knowing full well he would do it, that part of him even wanted to, that there was no other choice.
A minute later, they came to water. Perhaps twenty yards of it. Of unknowable depth. In the headlights, it shone a radioactive yellow-green. The boy braked. The boy swore.
I’m not driving through that.
It’s a fucking puddle.
And this is a fucking 2007 Honda CRV.
Perhaps the protests continued. Later, looking back, the boy would not remember them. All he would recall was the relief he felt upon regaining asphalt. Then, soon after, passing again the first streetlight. Spotify kicking back in soon after that, and another of the boys asking him to turn it up. Which, gladly, he did.
No one followed them back from the facility. Lab. Asylum. Whatever it was. The car did not break down. All of them made it home safe.
The next day one of them re-Googled Lake Oswego, retraced their route. The facility was Rutgers University’s Blueberry and Cranberry Research Center. No joke. Dead serious. The others were furious with him for disclosing this fact.
Later, much later, one of the boys, the boy who howled at the not-full moon, would seek treatment for schizophrenia. They would not hear from him for a while, and when they did it was not the same. One of the other boys would try to kill himself. He would fail—thank God—and, in the aftermath, he would get better. Then worse. Then better again. Epiphanies are not clean. Transformations are always incomplete.
One of them would go to Rutgers. This was New Jersey, after all. It was inevitable that one of them would go to Rutgers.
The last of them, the boy who drove, would not change. Or at least not much. He would continue to search for stories to tell. Not to live one—no. Not even to have lived one. Just to be able to tell of it.
Everyone doesn’t want to be someone. What they want is to have been someone. To look back and say, yes, that night, those woods, those boys—that was us. That was me.
That night, looking for Lake Oswego, for whatever was or was not there, four boys pushed out. They came as close to the darkness as they could before turning back. They would only visit the lake once more, the next summer, the summer before their first years away, and the boy would not drive. They would spend an hour on the edge of an ordinary body of water—weedy, fetid—and wonder what they had ever feared. Hell—they could swim to the other side if they wanted to. They did not.