It was my first and last sleepover. I don't know how I could ever have had another one after that. Maybe I missed out on some important childhood memories, but it wouldn't have seemed right. And anyway, I stopped being a child that night.
It was the summer of 1996. I had turned eleven that spring. My best friend was a beautiful and smart little girl named Cady. We had met at school and become fast friends after discovering our shared love for the Backstreet Boys. How funny and simple it all seems now.
Back then, I would often spend summer weekends at my grandparents' house out in Wakefield, Massachusetts. Wakefield was, and still is, a very quiet town. As much as I loved my grandparents, there was precious little to do when I went to visit them. Their house, which my great grandfather had built with his own two hands, sat on the outskirts of town, directly across from a swamp. If Wakefield proper was a boring place to a child my age, then being cooped up at their house was that on steroids.
As the first weekend of the summer approached, I saw an opportunity and seized it. "Mom," I asked, "can Cady come with me to grandma and grandpa's this weekend?"
To my complete surprise, my mother didn't say no right away. A thoughtful look washed over her face as she dried and set aside the dish she had been washing. "You know," she said, "that's not a bad idea. As long and Cady's mom says it's okay, I don't see why not!"
I was overjoyed. Within minutes, I was on the phone with my best friend and the whole thing was settled.
The weekend came, and there we were at last. My grandmother was all to happy too prepare a preteen girls' sanctuary for me and Cady right in the front room of the house. She had filled up a giant air mattress and placed it directly in the middle of the floor. Great piles of pillows and blankets were strewn about. As the night progressed, she even made an enormous bowl of popcorn which we devoured in what seemed like seconds. All told, I couldn't have asked for a better start to the summer.
At around midnight, my grandmother had gone to bed, leaving Cady and me to ourselves in the front room. There was a lull in the conversation when, suddenly, Cady piped up. "Hey," she said, "do you know any scary stories?"
"Scary stories?" I asked. I felt a little apprehensive. Horror and creepy things had never really appealed to me and, even as an eleven year-old, I had already had more than my share of nightmares. Little did I know then how much I would long for such childish dreams.
"Yeah," Cady answered. "Like what about the swamp over there? Anything spooky ever happen?"
I smirked as a memory came back to me. "Well," I began, "my mom says that, when she was a little girl, my grandpa used to tell her that a monster named Mr. Bloody lived down in the swamp."
"Cool!" Cady exclaimed. "Go on!"
"Well, that's kind of it," I said, suddenly worried about disappointing my friend. "I guess he would just tell her that Mr. Bloody lived in the swamp and that he'd come and get her if she went down there without permission."
Cady rolled her eyes. "Boring!" she said in in a sing-songy way.
"Sorry," I said, "I guess I just don't know any scary stories."
The conversation died once again, and I felt terrible for not knowing any stories that would excite my friend. Suddenly, a flash of light outside the window caught my eye. I perked up, struck with an idea.
"Come here," I said, rising from my spot and heading for the door. "I want to show you something."
"What?" Cady asked, as she began to follow.
I led Cady out the front door and onto the porch. "Now look straight ahead."
"At the swamp?" Cady asked.
"Yes," I said.
She became very excited. "Is Mr. Bloody going to pop out."
I laughed. "No, just watch."
She did so, and right before our eyes, tiny points of illumination began to dance among leaves of the trees and bushes surrounding the swamp. Cady gasped. "Fireflies!"
"Yeah," I said. "We get them every summer."
"This is so cool!" she exclaimed. "I've never seen a real---"
She stopped suddenly. I watched as her jaw dropped and her eyes grew wide. I followed her gaze over to the fireflies where I was met with the most remarkable thing I had ever seen. The flies began to concentrate themselves into some kind of a formation. It was very gradual at first, but before long the definite shape of a featureless person began to appear. As impressive as the sight was, it filled me with a kind of dread I'd never known before that moment.
"Is this what they do?" Cady asked.
"No," I said. "I've never seen this before."
"It's so cool!" she said. "Are you doing this?"
"No," I insisted. "How could I be doing this?"
A figure stood before us now, made entirely of tiny points of light. It had no expression to read, but held its hand outstretched, as if waiting for something. Cady began to move toward it. I grabbed her arm.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm going to go investigate," she said.
"Aren't you scared?"
"No, are you?"
"No," I said. It was a complete lie and we both knew it. "I just...."
"Don't be such a baby!" Cady exclaimed before shaking loose from my grasp.
I watched closely as Cady inched toward the figure. She got halfway across the road and stopped, as if listening for something. Her eyes were fixated on the figure, and she tilted her head slightly to the side. After a moment, she turned back and called to me. "He wants us to follow him!" she said, apparently having received some message that was inaudible from where I stood on the porch.
"No way!" I said. "Cady, please come back!" I could feel the panic rising in my chest.
"Come on!" Cady said. "Do you want me to have fun at this sleepover or not?"
I was hurt. Did this mean that she hadn't been having fun up to this point? The things that are important to an eleven year-old now seem ridiculous and regrettable in hindsight.
Cady continued. "I'm going to follow him. Are you coming or not?"
I tried with everything I had to force myself to follow her, but I simply could not. "No," I said.
Cady huffed. "Fine. But you'll be missing out.” She must have seen the fear in my eyes, because her expression softened, and added in a reassuring tone, “I'll be back, soon."
This seemed to be what the figure was waiting to hear. It backed up slowly into the greenery and Cady followed, leaving me alone in the dark. Not even the fireflies remained.
Anxiety rocked my body inside and out. I wanted to scream. I wanted to run and get my grandmother, but the fear of ruining Cady's fun and possibly losing a friend kept me paralyzed. Now, of course, the choice would be clear. It should have been then. I try not to beat myself up for being young and stupid. I try telling myself that everybody needs to make mistakes and learn lessons, but I also know that most children’s mistakes don’t come with the consequences mine did.
I barely moved until morning came. Perhaps I did something like sleep, but I was certainly no more rested for it. I remember finding myself huddled in a corner on the front porch as the sunlight gradually woke the world around me. Cady hadn't returned. Somehow, the daylight snapped me out of my childish fears and helped me see with terrible clarity the seriousness of the situation. I ran to my grandparents' bedroom and woke them, explaining that Cady had gone missing during the night. I told them she might have gone down to the swamp, but left out the description of whatever it was we had seen. I was so afraid they wouldn't believe me.
After a cursory search by the three of us turned up nothing, Cady's mother was called. By mid-afternoon, Cady's mother was in hysterics and a few policemen had joined our search. It wasn't until approximately five o'clock in the evening that Cady was found. She had been lying face down, tucked off into a clandestine corner of the swamp, hidden by the low-hanging branches of a willow tree. It would have seemed like a simple case of a child slipping and falling into the swamp and drowning, except for the light burn marks covering most of her body. To this day, this aspect of Cady's death remains officially unexplained. No one has ever asked for what I know, and I've never told.
Written by Jdeschene