“We can never tell these days when we’re adults,” Pastor Jordan told us in his morning message on the first day of the retreat, as we gathered in the boys’ room. “Long ago,” he said, “you had rituals that made your transition to adulthood clear. Your father would take you blindfolded into the jungle and leave you there, and you would have to find your way home, with no tools but your own wits. Once you returned, you’d be recognized as a fully functioning member of the community. Some remote societies still work that way today.
But instead of having one ritual, we have several—at sixteen you can drive a car. At eighteen you can vote. At twenty-one you can drink, and you can’t rent a car until you’re twenty-five. Instead of clarity, we have confusion. Is it any wonder that we have trouble putting our childish things away?”
That night, he said, we would have our own initiation. Everyone that hadn’t gone through it on a past retreat would go through it now. That meant those of us who were going to be freshmen in the fall, or older kids who had recently joined the youth group. It wouldn’t make us adults, he said, but it would show that we were part of a community, this community. And the playful shine in his eyes matched that, I saw, of the older kids, who had been through it before.
Some of them kidded us about it over the course of the day. When we followed them to the beach, or to the dining hall, they would squint their eyes at us and wonder aloud if we’d be able to handle it. They told us some kids had nightmares so bad after initiation that they were put in special hospitals. We knew it was a kind of play. But we didn’t know how we were supposed to respond—did they want us to pretend to be scared, or pretend to not be scared? Mostly we said nothing, and only sat there in the sand, or with our white legs dangling in the pool, looking sheepish, and they laughed at that.
Of all the older kids, only Derek refused to say anything about it. He was the one we wanted to hear it from, of course. But when we pestered him, he only pretended to lock his mouth, and toss away the invisible key. Then he would drift away down the beach with Celeste, where Jordan couldn’t see them, to perform what scandalous acts we could only imagine. Some of the younger kids said that there were sea caves down the beach where older kids would bang, but the rest of us knew that was a lie. If we knew about them, so would the organizers of the retreat, and they wouldn’t allow them.
I saw Derek a few months ago, at the liquor store, when I was back in town for a few days. It was Easter. I was staying with my parents, and the only thing they had in the house was, God knows why, an ancient bottle of crème de menthe. So I went to the liquor store, and that’s where I saw Derek. He looked a little embarrassed to be holding a fifth of vodka with a picture of a birthday cake on it, candles and all, and he told me it was for his wife. “It’s not so bad,” he said, “but the sugar upsets my stomach.” As if to prove that he had a wife, and that she enjoyed birthday cake-flavored vodka, he showed me a picture of her on his phone. Holy hell, I thought, she looked like Celeste.
“She looks like Celeste,” I said.
“Does she?” he said. “I guess so.”
“Whatever happened to her?” I asked.
“Celeste?” he said. “I don’t know. I haven’t talked to her in years.”
“We were all half in love with her, you know,” I said. That was only half true: we were all half in love with both of them. Derek was a varsity swimmer and he played the drums. He was working toward his pilot’s license, and he was going to get it, he told us, that summer, before he started college. He led a Bible study on Wednesdays and Jordan called him “a man after God’s own heart.” When he said that I often thought: Whose heart am I after? I concluded: probably Celeste’s. She had red hair and a ring of ivy tattooed around her ankle, which her mother had let her get or her seventeenth birthday. But if I had been honest with myself, I might have admitted that it was Derek’s heart I was really after, and his recognition I wanted. I had fantasies—God, how embarrassing—in which Celeste confessed her love to me, and kissed me on the mouth, and I was forced to say, “No, I can’t. Derek is a good friend of mine.” But I then again I would only say that after a few meaningful seconds where we made out.
Derek’s life, as recounted to me in Pitty Sing’s Liquor Emporium, was of breathtaking ordinariness: His wife, who looked like Celeste, his kids, who by the pictures in his phone might have been anyone’s kids, his job managing a small contracting business. He seemed very satisfied, and had gotten a little fat in the way that satisfied people do. He had certainly put his childish things away. I wanted to ask him if he ever felt like he was checking off the necessary boxes on an application for a tomb. Instead, I asked him if he remembered the Young Ohioan.
“Who?” he said. I tried to explain, but why would he remember?
I shouldn’t call him the Young Ohioan, of course. He was a year older than I was. He was going to be a sophomore, but he had just moved to North Carolina from Youngstown, Ohio. So there he was with us, the rising freshmen, sitting on the cabin porch the night of the initiation. He was older but he was scrawny, and he looked young, and it was easy for us to ignore him as he sat in the corner of the porch, legs dangling from the railing. I hadn’t said anything to him. No one had, as far as I recall. So the rest of us talked, and tried to hide our nerves, and kids from other youth groups walked from place to place, passing by the cabin porch. Sometimes older girls walked by, smelling of their own washed hair.
It was Celeste who came for us, one by one. Every few minutes, she would come out of the cabin and take the next initiand by the hand—I remember looking forward to that—into the dark door, where they disappeared and did not come back. They went one by one, until only the Young Ohioan and I were left.
It was just the two of us, and the occasional passerby. I was keeping watch for the older girls, who seemed to me then like beautiful ghosts. And as a matter of fact, we did exchange a few words, I think. I asked him how he liked it here compared to Ohio. He said that things in Ohio seemed much older, and I remember laughing and telling him that he was wrong. North Carolina was one was of the original Thirteen Colonies. “No shit,” he said, and laughed from behind his long hair. Maybe we talked about other things. If we did, I don’t remember any of them. It might make the story better, or worse, depending on how you look at it, if we had forged a friendship in those few minutes alone on the porch, under the island moon, with the beautiful ghosts, but for the most part, I’m certain that we only sat like pimpled logs. And then Celeste came for me, and I left him on the porch.
Inside the cabin it was dark. I knew, but could not see, that there was a long hallway in front of me, with rooms that branched out on other side with six beds each. The girls’ rooms were on the left and the boys’ were on the right. I was imagining that Celeste was really leading me to her room in the darkness when I heard the click of flashlights, and a row of faces blazed to life along the hall. “Ooga. Booga,” they said. They repeated it in unison, as a chant: “Ooga. Booga. Ooga. Booga.”
“Walk,” said Celeste, and I walked between the lighted faces. At the end of the hall, she pushed me gently in to the last room on the right, the boys’ room. I sensed that it was was full of people. At the far end of the room, more flashlights clicked on, and I could see the rest of them, some standing, others sitting on bunks. These new faces chanted, “Ooga. Booga.” They were the faces of Holly and John, Richard and Celeste—my friends. They were chanting, “Ooga. Booga.”
They turned their flashlights on a space at the far end of the room between two bunk beds. Derek was there, sitting in a chair with his hands on his knees. There was another chair, a folding chair, facing toward him. He was not saying, “Ooga. Booga.”
“Go to the King,” someone said. “Go to him,” others repeated.
As I walked through the narrow space they’d left to walk through, I felt them closing in behind me. I could feel the strong pulse of my heart—it was fun; I knew it was fun, but it was a haunted house kind of fun, a roller coaster kind of fun. I was afraid and not afraid.
Derek—the King—let his eyes fall on the chair. I understood that I was supposed to sit. We were eye-to-eye then.
He lifted one hand and showed me his palm. Then he did the same with the other hand. “Do as he does,” someone said. Others repeated, “Do as he does.” Most were chanting, “Ooga. Booga.”
I lifted my palms toward him—we were not close enough to touch, but almost. He lifted his right hand above his head; I lifted my left. He placed the other hand upon his heart; I did the same, He stood, and I stood with him; he crossed his arms over his chest like a corpse and so did I. He sat, I sat; he placed his hands over his ears, I placed my hands over my ears; he beat savagely on his knees with his fists, I beat on my knees. The chant was growing louder: “Ooga. Booga. Ooga. Booga. Ooga. Booga.”
For what seemed like a long time—probably no more than a minute or two, in truth—I did as the King did. He stood up and sat down several times, made wilder and wilder motions with his hands, moved his long swimmer’s arms faster and faster. The chanting grew faster too, and louder: “Ooga! Booga! Ooga! Booga!” Though I could hear surreptitious giggling from behind me, Derek never moved a muscle of his face and never let his eyes leave mine. I didn’t look away either.
He stood up and began to pound on his chest in the same rhythm as the chanting, very fast now. He shouted: “Ooga! Booga! Ooga! Booga!” I beat on my chest and shouted: “Ooga! Booga! Ooga! Booga!” We beat on our chests and shouted. He dropped back into his chair and so did I.
And then I shot up again. I am ashamed to say that I yelped—a brittle, pubescent yelp. There was laughter and the lights came on. I looked at my chair and saw the sponge, sopping wet. My friends were hooting and howling. Jordan grinned back at me from behind my chair. Where had he been? He reached his arms over the chair and hugged me. Then Derek hugged me too, and said, “Love you, brother.” I got hugged by all of them in turn, even Celeste, who pressed my face between her breasts. They never tell you that one of the downsides of getting older is that you grow too tall to be pressed between the breasts of most women when you hug them.
They put a flashlight in my hands and positioned me on one of the bunks behind the King. The lights went off and someone brought in the Young Ohioan, the last of the bunch to be initiated. When the flashlights came on, I could see his face, vaguely lit, still as stone. I chanted with the others: “Ooga. Booga.” When someone said, “Go to the king,” I repeated: “Go to him.” When someone exhorted, “Do as he does,” I said, “Do as he does.” The Young Ohioan looked incredibly unperturbed, even as he copied Derek’s movements in the half-darkness.
I was afloat with a feeling of good will. I decided, as I was chanting, when I would hug the Young Ohioan: after Jordan and Derek, but before anyone else. I would let him know, by hugging him, that he was welcome here, with us. That would probably mean a lot to him, as an exile.
Derek and the Young Ohioan went through their motions. I could see now that Derek had been improvising: the movements he made for the Young Ohioan were not the same as the ones he had made for me. From this perspective they looked incredibly silly, sitting and standing, grabbing at air in synchronized movement, and I stifled a few giggles of my own.
At last, when the moment arrived, I saw Jordan emerge from a dark corner of the room and place the wet sponge on the Young Ohioan’s empty chair. We were chanting wildly: “Ooga! Booga! Ooga! Booga!” Derek and the Young Ohioan beat on their chests, and then they sat down.
We hooted and howled in approval. But the Young Ohioan didn’t do anything at all. He didn’t jump up, he didn’t yelp. He sat there in the folding chair, as stony and still as ever. He didn’t even look behind him as Jordan wrapped his arms around his neck. We all grew quiet.
It’s strange. I do not think that anyone else saw what I saw. Probably they were captivated by the stoic and serious look in the Young Ohioan’s eyes. But I saw it: a dark, wet on the Young Ohioan’s sweatpants. Not on the back, where the sponge would leave a mark, but on the front, a dark bloom around his crotch. No, I’m sure that I saw it right—the Young Ohioan had pissed himself in fear. I think he’d wet his pants so thoroughly he hadn’t even felt the sponge.
He was lucky. As the last one, he didn’t have to stand there with the rest of us. Like the other initiates, he could go change before the smell set in. And in the end, it turned out to his advantage. For the rest of the week, everyone treated him like a hero, high-fived him, patted him on the back, told him he had “nerves of steel.” Some told him he would be a legend at retreats for years to come. Others, when they thought Pastor Jordan couldn’t hear, called him a badass. He took these compliments with the same inscrutable indifference, which only seemed to encourage them. I wonder if he ever even really knew what they were talking about. Even Derek told him that he had the kind of fearlessness it took to be a pilot, and invited him to come up in his Dad’s Cessna sometime. As for me, I avoided him. I was angry, not because of the praise he didn’t deserve, but because it seemed somehow that he had foisted his shame and humiliation onto me, as if I were the one who had wet his pants. For the remainder of the week, I was on the verge of blurting it out: Why should I feel so bad? He pissed himself! Didn’t you see?
In Pitty Sing’s, Derek invited me over to his house for dinner. I don’t know why. It was politeness, of course, but not politeness only; I could tell that well enough. Maybe he imagined that we had been friends in a way that was never really true, and that we had catching up to do. Maybe he recalled that hug, and remembered telling me he loved me, and those old fine feelings were welling up in him again. But I couldn’t have taken it, sitting there amid the accumulated detritus of another man’s life: the photographs and the golf clubs and the umbrellas and the many shoes piled up in the laundry room. I could imagine all of it clearly enough. What would we have had to talk about in a place like that?
But that’s the way things go, you know. You’re always running into people, but never the ones you want to run into. Not more than a month after the retreat, the Young Ohioan stopped coming to church on Sundays and on Wednesday nights—he simply vanished.
Pastor Jordan told us that he had gone back to Ohio, where his mother still lived. How nice it would have been to see the Young Ohioan step into Pitty Sing’s instead, walking in out of a long absence. We hadn’t had much to talk about then, but for some reason I feel we’d have a lot to say to each other now.
Christopher Chilton lives in New York City but was born and bred in North Carolina. His work has also appeared in Cellar Door, Niche, Pinball, and Gambazine.