When you first find it with the rest of the kids in your neighborhood, you will be fourteen. The lot is overgrown and lakeside. You will notice the waist-high grass and missing wood panels from the dock, and you will begin to think that the property is fading in to itself. It has gone unclaimed for years. You and your friends will step over the fraying rope that sags under the weight of a No Trespassing sign because you are young and just starting to learn the true meaning behind signs like these: Look inside. Find something that is not always visible to anyone else.
The boys will go first because they always do. They will run down the uneven dirt slope, slipping on the ridges jutting out like ribcages of the earth. You will follow them with the rest of the girls because you will feel no danger. There are trees surrounding you and climbing into the sky. You are hidden. An unfinished house with three sides faces you like a dollhouse, a gaping mouth with two floors, each one of them a room. You will notice how there are not any stairs and you will wonder out loud to your friends who left this behind.
Behind the house, at the back of the lot, a boarded walkway extends over the lake channel. It opens up into a deck with built-in benches and a roofed dock, where a boat can bob silently in the water. There will be no boat. There will be a ladder leading up to the shingled roof, twenty feet above water, and the boys you are with will spot it immediately because they have been waiting to do something impressive and there is nothing more daring than jumping from a tall height.
You will not remember who jumped first. It will not matter. The first time you jump, it will take you eighteen minutes. You will walk towards the lip of the roof and back up every time, laughing nervously and repeating to your friends that you cannot do it. They will cheer you on and offer to jump with you. Someone will reach out a hand. You will not take it.
When you jump, no one will have expected it. They will look over and see you as a splash in the water. You will be sinking, toes sliding into the muddy bottom, pushing against it to rocket back up to the surface. This is the first time you will feel indestructible, like the whole world is blossoming towards you. You will not realize it then, but something changed when you jumped. A release. In the future, when you do things like jump from waterfalls and move to a different country, you will look back on this day and understand. You will feel a part of you still swimming under the surface of this lake. But for now, you will come back above water and see that your friends are midair and falling.
That first day, you will all keep jumping, one after the other, screaming every time because the roof shingles burn your feet and the emptiness of the air after you push off from the edge makes you wonder if you will ever land. Hours later when everyone is panting and picking splinters from water-wrinkled skin, you will lie together on the roof under the sun, limbs outstretched like washed-up starfish. You will tell each other what a treasure of a place you found, a secret hidden the whole time, right outside the woods you knew so well. It was there all along.
You will spend most hours of the night there with your friends for the rest of summer. The dock lights will glow and mirror the stars that you will see while floating on your back in the lake. The water will be dark, and warm after the day’s heat. When you are drifting, you will feel like nothing is supporting you or surrounding you and you will begin to wonder where the lake ends and the sky begins. Looking around, you will see the dark silhouettes of your friends and hear their quiet laughter, the hushed whispering that you all adopt because something about the place is sacred and also because you are still technically trespassing. All of you will sip from beers you stole from your parents’ garages and pretend to be tougher than you are. You will steal glances at Austin, the guy who lives next door to you, throughout the night and try to figure out if he likes you back. You will play games like Truth or Dare, and everyone’s hearts will beat faster because you all know there are secrets to be told.
Hours after midnight, when the clouds start to obscure the moon, you will all jump from the boat shelter one last time before climbing back onto the dock and collecting your clothes in the dark. You won’t bother to dry off before you put them on because no one can see anything. You will follow each other single-file down the length of the wooden walkway back towards land. Together, you will scramble up the dirt path, blind to where your feet are stepping, tripping on breaks in the earth.
When time begins to pass and your friends do not all go to the same school anymore, you will try not to forget to visit the lot. It will have been with you for all of your teenage years, still abandoned and unclaimed, yet some unspoken agreement between you and your friends will say it belongs to all of you. You will look back and think of how the first time you smoked pot was with someone you dated at the time—how he was a stranger to the place but you brought him anyways because you trusted him, how you both sat on the dock and pressed yourself into shadows in case a boat floated by, and the whole time you were passing a joint back and forth that was starting to come undone. You will think back to two years ago, when Jessica leapt off the wrong spot of the dock’s roof and her foot smashed against a metal pole submerged underwater. You will remember the way she pulled herself to shore in a collected panic, layers of her skin peeled back, bright red blood running in rivulets down her foot. You will think about the fireworks everyone set off from the dock every Fourth of July, explosive and beautiful and dangerous—and how one year, the red roman candles burst and backfired, making the roof ignite with flames. The sirens on the fire trucks weaving through the overgrown driveway were the same color as the lights you sent into the sky. You watched from the trees as ashes fell all around you. It was one of the last times everyone spent at the lot together.
In your house, you will think of how it only takes ten minutes to walk from your front door to the lot. Sometimes you will get in your car and drive by it, slowing down near the gravel driveway but not stopping. You will see different children on the dock and you will wonder if they have jumped from the roof yet or if they even know the right spot to jump from. You will find it strange to think of how the place is foreign to you, how it is someone else’s discovery now.
The night you decide to go back will be the first time you walk through the lot in years. The house will be gone. The empty space will make it seem like someone simply picked up the house and left, leaving the foundation behind to sink into earth. The wood on the dock will look more aged and the boat shelter will be gaunt. There will be graffiti on the walls, spray-paint bright and loud like an insult. The ladder that led into the water will be chained up to the dock to prevent swimmers and other people who do not belong. The wooden steps to the jumping spot on the roof will be gone, and it will make you feel broken. You will want to trade anything for that feeling of falling and uncertainty you felt years ago. You will close your eyes and try to transport yourself back to when you knew this place and the people you now call strangers. When you open your eyes, it will feel like you are looking at ghosts.
You will hardly recognize where you are. Feel free in your discomfort. You will sit on the edge of the dock and lower yourself into the lake with your clothes on, letting the water soak through the denim of your jeans and make you heavy. You will give in to gravity and fill your lungs with air, sinking into the belly of the lake you have always known. The blue-grey water will surround and suspend you, and it feels like you are floating in outer space, far away from everything. For a moment, you will feel fourteen again, full of adrenaline and invincibility. You will go as long as you can without breaking the surface. While submerged, you will listen to the lake’s heartbeat and your own, thumping through your ears—the muffled pulse of water, a familiar sound that, like the past, comes back, comes back, comes back.