EVEN THE CHILDREN COME TO watch us drown. Four of us line the banks of the duck pond in insulated clothes, shivering through alternating spikes of adrenaline and fear. Rays of waning sunlight speckle the black surface of the water, punctuated by ripples of movement from the fish unfortunate enough to reside here.
Dad waits for the entire community to assemble before launching into his usual pre-training speech. He adjusts the collar of his fleece-lined jacket and clears his throat against the side of his fist. “Our focus today is cold-water survival. We don’t know if we’ll ever fall through ice or have to wade across a river to search for food.”
“Right on!” someone shouts.
The cheer electrifies the rest of the group. They surge forward, as if eager to watch my misery up close. From the rear, a woman’s voice calls out our unofficial motto: “Always be ready for the worst day of your life!”
Dad shoots a withering glare in the direction of the speakers. Our neighbors shrink away, chastened. “As I was saying, disaster can strike at any time, folks. That means winter. That means tougher hunting. That means walking farther and working harder to stay alive.” He turns to us, gesturing at the colorful flotation devices piled by the bank. “During this scenario, your objective is to don a life preserver and conserve your body heat for ten minutes. The water is forty-one degrees.”
I glance at my sister as she peeks out from around my mother’s waist. When no one’s looking, she mouths, Always be ready, complete with a dramatic eye-roll and a sassy wobble of her head. My jaw tenses with the effort of restraining a laugh. Katie’s small mockeries make this tolerable.
As soon as Dad’s finished grandstanding, she rushes over with my neon-orange life vest and presses a kiss against the collar. “For good luck!” she chirps as she tosses the vest into the water. After watching it partially submerge and then bob to the surface, she prods me with her elbow. “Why do we call this the duck pond if it’s full of geese?”
I suck in a ragged breath as I untie my shoelaces and kick my boots into a nearby bush. Thick muck squelches between the toes of my athletic socks. “I’ll tell you later,” I mutter, distracted by the slow drift of unidentifiable brown goop across the pond.
“I was just wondering.”
“Line up for your safety inspection,” Dad barks.
I shuffle into position and pat my pockets to make sure they’re empty. My watch is water-rated. The life preservers are already in the water. All set.
Dad pauses next to the boyfriend he chose for me, giving him a firm handshake and a smile that shows more teeth than affection. In my family, that’s practically a French kiss.
“Really excited for training, sir,” Roy says. “Been looking forward to it all week.”
I resist the urge to smack my palm against my forehead. Not for the first time, I wonder what is so moving about my father that could make a teenage boy into such a programmed robot. Maybe Roy shouldn’t go in the water after all. It might ruin his circuits.
Dad gives me a curt nod as he examines my clothing choices. Finding nothing else to comment on, he continues down to assess Heather and Candace. At thirteen, they’re the only others old enough to participate in this particular task. Or young enough. The adults hold their cold-water survival in the river, having graduated from Doomsday Prepper 101 under the direction of my grandparents. By blood, I guess that makes me a third-generation misfit.
Dad nudges our shoulders as he returns to the far bank to observe. “Take off any extra layers or you’re wearing them in the water. The scenario begins in thirty seconds.”
I’m not sure if there’s anything as embarrassing as having a parentally selected boyfriend, but stripping down to skintight leggings in front of all our neighbors has to come close. I avert my eyes as Roy peels off his jeans and folds them into a precise square. He tries to help me out of my sweatpants, but I hop away, glaring. “Don’t even think about it.”
At Dad’s cue, the scream of a whistle pierces the quiet aura of anticipation hovering over us. Like swimmers launching from their starting blocks, Roy and the girls execute expert dives and plunge into the deepest part of the pond. I will my legs to move, but my muscles betray me.
It’s only two months until I can run away to college and leave all of this behind. Somehow, knowing the wait is nearly over makes it harder to endure this nonsense, no matter how much I’m conditioned to expect it by now. At least I’ll have a great conversation starter at freshman orientation. Hi, I’m Becca. I occasionally hurl myself into duck ponds and eat grubs for dinner. Want to be roomies?
Another few seconds pass and I still can’t conjure the mental fortitude required to willingly leap into a cesspool. The longer I look at the water, the more disgusting it appears. I haven’t even touched it and I’m already yearning for my custom-molded earplugs and anti-fog goggles.
“Becca’s a chicken!” Katie shouts. She bends her arms into mock wings and prances in circles, pecking at the air. “Bawk! Bawk! Bawk!”
“I am not!” My sister always knows what to do, what to say, to make all of this into a silly game. There’s no malice in her jokes, unlike the jeering and heckling that rises from the crowd. Dad is silent, probably considering how he’ll punish me for my hesitation.
I set the timer on my watch and jump, refusing to give the onlookers the satisfaction of hearing me scream. My skin pulls taut over my body, the shock of the sudden cold worse than any chemical paralytic. The glowing face of my waterproof watch taunts me as I sink. It takes nine seconds for overwhelming panic to seize my heart at the sight of the black, lethal nothingness surrounding me.
Driven by pure instinct, I fight to the surface and scan for a splotch of orange somewhere in the mayhem. The weight of my clothes threatens to pull me under as I break into a sloppy, one-armed sidestroke. I consider stripping off my water-logged socks, but they’re my only defense against the sticks and stones lining the bottom of the pond.
Candace and Heather float by in their life preservers, breathless and pale from the exertion of retrieving them. I clench my teeth in anger. Anyone tiny enough to wear extra-small safety equipment should not be subjected to this insanity, regardless of their age. They belong in floaties, with pool noodles and inflatable sharks, not forty-one-degree water deep enough to swallow them whole.
I flop toward my life preserver and lunge for the strap. It slips between my fingers, but I manage to keep a grip on the buckle. I hold it steady with my hand as I dip below the surface and emerge beneath it, stuffing my head and arms through the appropriate holes. I don’t breathe again until the straps are secure.
Roy swims to my side, his hair plastered over his forehead like a sheepdog at bath time. He opens his mouth to speak, but he’s cut off by the sound of Heather’s sudden crying. Our heads whip around in unison to find her sinking in her life preserver, her thin torso slipping through the bottom of the too-large vest. She bites the fabric and pushes herself up by the armholes.
“Come on,” I wheeze. “Let’s help them.”
Together, we corral the girls and shove them onto a broken branch hanging diagonally into the water. Their skinny arms latch around the lifeline, their feet scrabbling for purchase against the soggy bark. After another moment of struggle, Candace sets her feet on Heather’s shoulders and propels herself higher. Heather tumbles back into the water, shrieking.
“That’s my girl!” Candace’s father shouts from the bank. “She’s a fighter!”
Once Heather clambers onto a lower segment of the branch, Roy slides his hands through my life preserver and crushes me to his chest, panting in rapid, shallow huffs. He breathes against my neck, which would normally repulse me, but the warm air is a salve on my freezing skin. “Can’t be much longer,” he gasps.
I cradle my knees to my chest and try to maintain a heat-conserving survival posture. My fingers slide and grapple against the slippery fabric of my leggings as the chill seeps all sensation from my body. “Until they let us out or until we die?”
“Not sure,” he jokes.
Roy directs my torso upright as I roll sideways, both of us fighting to keep my airway clear. My throat closes with panic at the first taste of the brackish water. His palms clamp down on my shoulders, holding me steady. “Drowning in a life vest.” He shakes his head, chuckling despite the fact that we’re in a duck pond, dying. “Only you.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and focus on my breathing, ignoring the pulses of pain beginning in my toes and radiating across my shins. It starts as pins and needles and evolves into a slow burn. “My toes are numb.”
“Cold incapacitation already,” Roy marvels, his words punctuated by breathless huffs. “Must be your low body-fat percentage. Fascinating.”
I don’t have a reply to that. My ability to speak, to think, diminishes by the second. The water that initially felt chilly is now an ice bath.
Oblivious to my decreasing tolerance for both the temperature and his brainwashing, Roy drones on, saying, “Really great training scenario. One of my favorites. Never know when we might have to survive in cold water.”
I fidget out of his grip and paddle a few feet away, swiping at the dirty droplets smeared across my prescription safety glasses. Roy’s frown is a hazy squiggle. I swat at his hand as he reaches for me again. “Just let me die in peace without having to listen to more doomsday-prepper bullshit, all right? I can’t take it anymore.”
He recoils, sucking in a sharp breath.
“No, no, I didn’t mean it like that.” My brain-to-mouth filter is malfunctioning. “You’re right. It’s an awesome training idea.”
I can tell from Roy’s dubious stare that he doesn’t believe me, just like I don’t believe in throwing children into half-frozen duck ponds to prepare for the imminent end of the world. Wincing with pain and frustration, I swim over to the bank and tuck my body into a hollow carved by higher waterlines. A pair of familiar brown work boots juts over the lip above my head.
“Dad,” I plead, extending a hand within his grasp. “I think ten minutes is too long. It hurts. We’re going to get hypothermia.” With horror, I realize that my fingers are brushing against a clump of reeds, but I feel nothing. “Mom?” She’s a nurse. She should know better.
Dad leans forward, scowling at my mother before she can intervene. For a moment, I think he’s going to rescue me, but he only places a foot against my shoulder and pushes me back into the pond. “You’re embarrassing me. No one else is complaining.”
“Quitters don’t get dinners,” Roy parrots as he catches my arm and hauls me into deeper water. His parents beam with pride.
I pivot onto my back and beg the clouds to reveal a sliver of sun. The chattering of Roy’s teeth fades into the background, replaced by the dull throbbing of my sputtering heart. My breathing becomes slow and labored. I close my eyes.
The next sensation I feel is Roy’s finger poking against my cheek. I don’t have the energy to yell at him for touching me. “Becca.”
“Go away. I’m tired.”
He picks up my limp wrist and holds it in the air. “One minute.”
I lift an eyelid in time to watch the stopwatch flick to fifty-eight seconds. Perhaps sensing my inability to move, Roy tows me closer to shore like a stunned turtle. The girls join us in the shallows, all of us pressing together for warmth.
At twenty seconds remaining, Dad brings the whistle to his lips and blows. Everyone else dashes for shore with the last of their strength, but I stay behind, knowing that I haven’t done my full stint in the water. I keep my eyes glued to my watch until the alarm starts beeping. “Can I get out now?” I ask.
Dad glances at my mother for confirmation. She shrugs. “Yes.”
I crawl onto the bank, hot tears steaming against my frozen cheeks. Katie offers me her arm, but I shake my head. She isn’t big enough to support my weight. When I fall, it won’t be a gentle surrender. It’ll be a demolition.
Instead, she fetches my clothes and helps me change. It’s funny how feeling on the verge of imminent death erases any qualms about stripping in public.
“Your muscles will start cramping if you don’t keep moving,” Mom says as she peers down at my pathetic form. “Come on. You can do it.”
I wobble to my feet and limp after the rest of my family, steeling my bones for the arduous trek home. Katie turns to watch as I crumple to the ground and struggle to lock my knees enough to stand again. “Daddy, can Becca ride in the truck? We can both fit if I sit in her lap.”
“No, she’s filthy.”
“George,” Mom whispers, patting his shoulder. “She’s exhausted. There’s no valid reason to make her walk.”
Dad points to my mud-soaked clothes. “She’ll get the seats all wet. What if mold starts growing?”
“It’s only for, like, two minutes.” Katie folds her arms and stomps past Dad, pouting as she works her youngest-child wiles.
“Fine,” he relents, smiling when she smiles. “She can ride in the truck.”
“Really?” A slow blush bleeds across my cheeks. The resentful part of me wants to ignore this morsel of kindness, but in spite of myself, I savor it. “Thank you.” The latter part is really for Katie and her seemingly preternatural ability to use Dad’s doting for my benefit. It’s not my fault that his love skipped a generation.
I reach for the passenger door of Mom’s old pickup, desperate for the heater and shelter from the wind. The center of the bench seat has never looked so inviting, even if I’ll have to contort my lower legs around the gear shift. Dad hits the lock and jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “No, the back.”
“Sure. Right.” I’m so grateful for the lift that I don’t even mind occupying a space usually reserved for fertilizer and chicken feed. I bounce between the tailgate and the bumps of the wheel wells, the ridges of the bed liner scraping against my spine in a violent massage.
The truck shudders again as Mom hops the curb where the unpaved trail leading from the pond juts against the main road weaving through the neighborhood. I heave a half-hysterical sigh of relief when I spot yellow siding and black shutters in the distance.
When the truck rumbles into the driveway, I’m already dreaming of a hot shower and a hair dryer, not to mention clean underwear. I slide down the side of the pickup, using the tire as a foothold, and march toward the front door with single-minded purpose.
Dad has other ideas, though. He grabs the collar of my shirt and yanks me back. “You’re grounded. And inventory while you’re down there!” He hustles Mom and Katie into the house, cursing at the dog as she darts into the yard.
“No problem!” I stand there and seethe in secret as Belle approaches to investigate all of my interesting new smells. At least half of them are goose feces.
Once it’s clear that Dad isn’t going to change his mind, I maneuver around the side of the house to stand beneath Katie’s window. Belle stomps her paws in the ever-increasing puddle forming at my feet. Just when I’m thinking about giving up, Katie sticks her head out from the second floor and smiles. “Grounded again?”
“Literally,” I croak. “Help.”
She holds up her index finger and vanishes. One minute. I count the seconds, feeling each like an eternity. She returns after three minutes with my backpack and dangles it past the sill. “Don’t tell Dad. Or Mom. It’s okay if the dog knows.” She giggles.
“Did you pack my physics stuff?” I ask. I should be worried about the fact that I’ve almost stopped shivering, but the worksheets that are due tomorrow somehow seem more pressing than my growing risk of hypothermia. “It’s the purple textbook and the purple notebook. And my pencil case.”
Katie sighs and tosses the bag onto a patch of dead grass. It lands with a thud that might be the spine of my book disintegrating. A physics textbook ruined by gravity. Ironic. “I remembered,” she says. “Geek.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass.”
She raises her eyebrows. “You said a bad word.”
“Your face is a bad word.”
“Your face is a bad turd!”
I’ve been bested by a ten-year-old. “Good one. See you in the morning. Thanks.”
I sling the pack over my shoulder and begin the slow hike into the woods, ignoring the stabs of pain that result from each step. The thorn bushes tug at my clothes as I stumble along the only clear route in a forest filled with concertina wire and antivehicle barrier systems. Belle follows, her whines drawing me back to reality as my vision blurs and the world spins.
Finally, I reach the inconspicuous clearing that houses the bunker. I crumple onto the ground and search through the undergrowth to find the boxy outline of the hatch. Belle sniffs at my cheek, her concern evident in the low swaying of her tail, her eyes that seem to ask, If you die, who will feed me?
“I’m not dying.” Maybe. I think. I heave the hatch open and kick my way across the narrow chute until I feel the ladder beneath my feet. I lean back in midair, my hamstrings straining with the effort of clinging to the rungs with only my legs. “Don’t freak out.”
I push her snout clear as I close the hatch and secure the locking mechanisms on the underside. Belle shuffles around on the surface, her nails skittering as she settles in for an abbreviated vigil, at least until the damp and the cold drive her away.
I lean against the wall, feeling the pressure of the earth and steel surrounding my family’s apocalyptic vacation home.
I’m buried alive.