It was that time of evening when the sun turned cold and most of its heat had dipped below the horizon. It was always at this time of the day or later when we returned to the resort. We tried to squeeze every ounce of light and warmth out of the day before our bodies, shivering and wet and exhausted from the workout, could take it no longer and begged for the warmth of a cabin.
Skiing back into the valley from the wooded trails was a quiet event. Above us, the tops of the pines and birches turned a hazy purple over the cabin roofs. We could hear the hushed humming of our skis against the snow, and the whisper as clumps fell from bushes and low branches of trees, making gray indents on the path.
The cabins were frosted around the edges with a white too pure to exist anywhere but at a ski resort in late December. We inhaled the earthy scent of the logs as we removed our skis, brushed them off and slipped them into our bags, stacked up against the wall in bright vertical lines. Isaac rolled a snowball in one stroke and deftly swung it at Adrian, who ducked into a snowbank. Missing its mark, the packed snow instead hit James full on in the head, white flakes stuck in his black hair, sticking out from under his hat. We pushed and shoved each other, tumbling in the snow and letting our fingers and toes get fully, stingingly numb before we plunged into the cabin’s warmth.
In the cabin we changed into clothes we had earlier hung on the bunk beds to dry, and as we warmed, limbs tingling, fatigued, and just-thawed, we made our way back out into the cold. We skittered and crunched across the bottom of the valley, sliding across the ice and through the doors of the main lodge. Inside it smelled of soup and saltines, hot chocolate and meatloaf. The mutt who lived at the resort was curled up outside the entryway to the kitchen, soaking up the heat and the smells. We each gave it a pat as we found a seat on a long wooden bench.
The food that our team ate there was the best food we had ever tasted. It was something about the warmth of the lodge, the satisfaction of hunger being satiated after a long workout, and the company of the other boys, laughing and talking and spilling warm cider. Alex stole bread rolls from Connor, and Connor stole croutons from James's salad and pelted them at me, and everyone apologized profusely when it landed on the next table instead. Our white porcelain plates spilled over with food, stained with dark meatloaf and salad and bread. For dessert we were served apple turnover, golden and gooey, and Alex spilled his onto James's lap as he was carrying it back to the table, which was a mess but everyone laughed it off except James, and Alex went back to get more.
We loitered at the dinner table, huddled together, our backs to the big windows that lined the dining hall and our collars pulled up around our necks. We felt as though we were keeping out the darkness and the cold that loomed outside. When we finally got up, filing past the windows with our empty plates, the sky was dusted with stars over the silhouettes of the pines.
Upstairs from the kitchen there was a library that sprawled across the entire floor, winding around fireplaces and benches and tree stumps that looked enough like chairs to be brought inside and sat on. The books were old and dusty and covered in plastic and intoned with warm hues, reds and dark greens. We retreated up there after dinner and sat on the stones of the fireplace, heat licking our backs. I said we should play cards. I had the deck in my hand, swiped from one of the shelves, the aged cardboard falling apart in my palm.
Adrian was the one who shot me down. “It's Plunge night,” he said. The Plunge was an old tradition, older than us and older than our coach, possibly as old as the resort, or even skiing itself. But it was a cold night and a cold winter and the ice was thick on the lake.
“There might not be a hole cut,” I said.
“There's a hole cut,” Adrian said, with a definitiveness that could not be argued with. There had been cold winters before. It did not matter how warm the fire was, or how cold the night. The tradition of the Plunge was bigger than us, and we knew that we would do it. We peeled ourselves away from the fireplace. Shaking out our stiff legs, we left the library amid laughter and the electric feel that your skin holds when you know there is adventure ahead.
We scrambled to dig out dry towels from underneath damp and musty ones. Our swimsuits had all been packed underneath layers of jackets and gloves and hats, because everyone knew about the Plunge. Even our coach knew, though he said nothing and had retired to his cabin long ago. We pulled sweatshirts on over our bare chests, and wrapped towels around our legs to stave off frostnip on the way to the lakeshore. We slipped outside so quickly that we forgot our shoes, and ran with our feet stinging with numbness against the ice. There was a shoveled trail that wound around the other buildings and went down to a shack near the lakeshore. We ran as quickly as we could in the dark, dodging in and out of the lights from the other cabins so that sometimes we could see nothing more than the back of the boy in front of us, and sometimes less than that. James was the last of us, and he stumbled and fell to his knees, almost losing sight of us entirely before catching up.
We were wound up with excitement, yipping and crying like dogs. Inside the shack there was a radiator that we turned on with fumbling hands. It was dark, and we were careful to remember where we put our towels. We ripped sweatshirts off over our heads and exposed our bare torsos to the cold. It felt as though a great dark weight had hit everyone in the chest, although we tried not to admit the pain as we stumbled back outside to the lake.
Walking down to the water was perhaps the most painful part of the entire ordeal because the ice on your feet was so cold it felt as though your soles must be bleeding. If you looked straight ahead, past the other boys, you could see the great black swath of water cut against the sheen of white ice on the lake. The hole was cut in two rectangles: the first was the longer of the two, and then there was a narrow strip of ice, and then another slightly shorter rectangle, nearest to the shack. The challenge was to start on the far end and swim all the way back to the shack, where there was a metal ladder leaning against the edge of the ice. This meant that toward the middle you would need to submerge yourself completely into the water and swim a stroke or two underneath the sheet of ice. To not submerge yourself completely was cheating.
We lined up quickly, with Connor and Isaac holding the ladder to ensure that it did not slip, and to help trembling people out of the water. We fought and pushed each other on the ice to decide who would go first, and after we had decided on Alex we watched him leap in, limbs twitching frantically against the cold, his head bobbing above the water as he struggled to see in the dark. We could tell when he reached the ice because for a moment the splashing went silent, and then we could hear him kicking again on the other side. He reached the ladder, and we could hear the metal rattling against the ice because he was shaking so hard. We could just see the metal glint of it in the moonlight, and his shape sprinting for the safety and the warmth in the shack. He would wait there, huddled against the radiator, until we all got back. We went one by one, fighting over who should go next, while trying to decide for ourselves whether it was better to stand on the ice longer or plunge next and suffer the brain-numbing water in order to get back to the radiator more quickly.
I was near the end of the line, not the very last, but unwilling to be among the first. When I jumped, I could feel the rest of the world falling away, could feel my utter lack of control in the freezing temperatures. My mind burned trying to control my limbs enough to swim the distance; my entire body shook under the water. I tried to keep my face above the surface but it was impossible to see anything in the dark, and water splashed into my eyes and ears and all I could hear was chaos around me. My forehead hit the ice before I could see it, and I ducked underneath and swam blindly until my lungs burned. When I came up, I had overshot the distance and was nearly on the other side. I grasped the ladder and it shook so much I nearly missed the step, banging my knee on the metal until it bled. Finally, I was free, feet burning, body numb and twitching. I ran to the comfort of the shack, pushing the others out of the way and leaning against the radiator until the skin on my ribs burned.
Connor and Isaac wandered in after everyone else had gone.
“Everyone goes again,” Connor said, arms crossed and smiling.
“Nah, Man, I don't wanna get sick,” Alex complained. Skiing while ill was an experience best avoided, and standing around cold and wet was an easy way to catch something.“C'mon! C'mon, me and Isaac have to go still and we don't wanna do it alone.”
“I'll hold the ladder, but I'm not going again.”
We dropped our towels and placed our palms on the radiator one final time to absorb the heat. Isaac gave James a shove towards the door and grabbed his towel from him, laughing and gesturing at everyone else to hurry up. We left the warmth and trotted back to the water, a herd of bare feet and chattering teeth. I stopped at the near side of the water's edge and grabbed the ladder with Alex, to show that I was not going in again, either. Instead, I'd simply help the others out of the water while my feet slowly lost feeling from the soles up.
Connor went first, then Isaac, and they didn't need help with the ladder. Then Adrian went, and by the time he got out of the water he was wheezing and squealing; he could not control his lungs or his chest as they searched desperately for warm air. As he headed back to the shack, he was trembling so violently it seemed as though his organs were shaking, like he was freezing on the inside and out.
James was the last. We heard him splash into the water gently, which meant that he had been careful not to submerge his head right away. Everything was silent, and the lights of the cabins were very far away. James was taking a very long time to get under the ice sheet, but James was a slow skier and a slow swimmer, so we thought nothing of it until we saw his head emerge frantically from the water near the end of the ice sheet, and we knew that he must have been turned the wrong way somehow and gotten lost under the ice. We could see his shaking from there, as he tried to hang onto the ice sheet, too cold to swim to the end.
Alex bent to jump into the water, but as he did so his foot slipped on the ice and hit the metal of the ladder. He grabbed his foot and winced because the cold seemed to multiply the pain tenfold and the ladder fell from its position and tilted across the water, striking James on the back of the head.
Or maybe it was only in his shoulder, or his back, but either way, both James and the ladder sank under the water right before my eyes. I shouted, and Alex collected himself enough to dive in after them, but only Alex came back up, clutching the ice with his hands and elbows, clenching every muscle in his body that was still under his control. I stood at the water's edge and did not move and did not look away and I am not sure why.
Afterward, we put our clothes on in a rush, as though we could not cover ourselves fast enough. We ran through the dark and the night wrapped around us.
We ended up in the library, still wet from the water and wrapped in our towels. We sat on the furniture that curved around the room away from the fireplace. Adrian had grabbed the deck of cards absentmindedly from the shelf and palmed them, the cardboard disintegrating in his hand. Alex sat with one leg bent over the opposite knee, pressing his foot with one hand and flinching every once in a while, as though he was not aware he was causing himself pain, or knew it and could not stop. Connor cleared his throat, but did not speak. Isaac stood at the door, staring at his feet, one hand holding his towel tightly around his waist and the other playing with the doorknob, opening it and closing it slowly.
I watched them quietly, my knee scabbing over from where it had bled, saying nothing, thinking nothing.
The police came.
“It wasn't anyone's fault,” one told us, and we knew they were lying but we did not speak of it.
Samantha Schnirring is an 18-year-old high school student living in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. This is her first publication.