MEDWAY — It was approaching 9 on a recent weeknight, when Joey Bevilacqua — a tall, shaggy-haired senior at Medway High School — wheeled his SUV onto a quiet residential street in this leafy suburb, and killed the lights.
In his lap was a bright blue water gun, a piece of premium water-weaponry that for the past week had rarely left his side. Tonight, he hoped, he’d finally be able to put it to use.
Since the start of the school’s “Senior Soak” competition — a delirious, weeks-long water fight that has long been an annual rite of springtime passage for high school seniors here and elsewhere — things had not gone particularly well for Bevilacqua. A week in, he was still chasing his first “kill,” after an initial attempt went awry. Making matters worse, his friend Rob DiGregorio — who on this night was riding shotgun and offering up moral support — had emerged as the school’s leading marksman.
“I got three kills on the first day,” DiGregorio crowed. “I’m gonna win.”
Tonight, though, Bevilacqua had reason for optimism.
Earlier that day, he’d received a tip that his target, a senior lacrosse player named Lily, would be arriving home from an out-of-town game around 9 p.m., and he’d spent much of the past hour staking out her neighborhood, eventually setting up on a dark road near the girl’s house.
Now, as the hour approached, he readied his weapon and waited.
* * *
Senior Soak, also known as “Senior Assassin,” is a ubiquitous tradition among high school seniors dating back at least a generation. Many mid-career adults fondly recall their own youthful exuberance playing it. But this year, with the horrific images of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., still fresh and a youth movement galvanized around ending such violence in schools, the game’s casual talk of “hits,” “targets,” and “kills” has struck a chord.
In a recent meeting with seniors, officials at Franklin High School called it hypocritical to take part in such a game just weeks after participating in a school walkout over gun violence.
“They don’t want to hear it,” said Franklin’s principal, Paul Peri. “They also couldn’t deny some of the things we were talking about.”
At Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School, principal Angela Watson said the intensity of the game seems to have faded this year.
Even some students who are throwing themselves full-throttle into the competition say they are taking pains to distinguish the fun of the game from the violent imagery.
“We really wanted to drive that message home,” says Pembroke High School senior Cameron Anderson, who informed participants at his school this year that illegal or insensitive behavior is grounds for disqualification. “‘It’s just a squirt gun. Do not pretend it’s a real gun.’”
Part hide-and-seek, part water fight, part battle of wits, the game is organized by students and not officially sanctioned by schools. The competitions vary slightly from one school to the next, but each generally follows the same guidelines: Students join by paying a small entry fee — usually around $5 — and are assigned a random, participating classmate as a “target,” along with a deadline to complete the mission. Players who succeed are given a new target and advance to the next round. Those who get doused or fail to meet the deadline are out.
The rules also typically demand that school buildings and school-related events are off-limits. Same for after-school jobs — at least until a shift ends.
Many school officials worry about the trouble, and danger, students might get themselves into in a game that calls for pursuit and surprise attacks. In one incident last year in Hopkinton, three students were briefly detained by police after they entered a resident’s garage and were mistaken for burglars. This year, at least one area school sent notices to parents, warning them that students would be out playing the game.
“It’s sad,” said Watson, the Bridgewater-Raynham principal, who says the game itself likely started out as good fun but that the world has changed. “I sometimes think that the world takes their childhood away.”
Concerns seem to have done little to cut into the game’s widespread popularity, though. At King Philip Regional High School, 228 members of the senior class signed up to participate this year, with students from across the area throwing themselves into the competition with impressive vigor.
In Pembroke, one student awoke at 4:30 a.m. earlier this month, then spent an hour hiding in the woods near the high school to get the drop on a classmate he knew would be arriving for a morning practice. And when one senior found herself trapped at work one night, her assassin parked outside, she enlisted friends to pose as delivery men and wheel her out of the store in a large box.
“It took like two hours to make the boxes,” says the senior, Sydney Phillips. “They put a lot of thought into it.”
The fear of getting soaked — and disqualified — has driven many seniors into seclusion.
Some barely leave the house, forgoing activities like outdoor runs for the basement treadmill. Others have scrubbed their social media accounts, aware that would-be assassins are scouring Instagram and Snapchat for clues to their whereabouts.
“Snap Maps are a killer,” explains Courtney Willis, a senior at Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, of the Snapchat feature that provides friends with a real-time map of a user’s location. “You have to turn those off.”
In the weeks since competitions began, there have been countless stories of truces made and broken, of friends and teammates turning on one another. Even family members must be viewed warily; it took a bribe of just two doughnuts, reports one senior at King Philip Regional High, for a girl to give up her older brother.
“Nobody trusts anybody,” says Pembroke’s Anderson of the school’s current social climate. “It’s like the Cold War.”
Last week, according to a story widely circulated at the school, a male senior at the school looked out his window one afternoon to find a female classmate standing outside his house, holding a sign asking him to prom. He stepped outside, expecting a promposal, only to realize too late that it was all a set-up.
His assassin squirted him dead.
As for prom?
Says the girl holding the sign, “I already had a date.”
Back in the SUV, the boys were discussing their next move when, in the darkness, a pair of headlights suddenly appeared.
“That’s her!” someone yelled. “Go, go, go!”
In an instant, they were flying down a residential street in pursuit, and when the target pulled her car into a nearby driveway, Bevilacqua screeched to a halt behind it. He sprung from the SUV and took off down the long driveway, pulling open the driver’s door and raising his water gun.
The girl screamed, Bevilacqua sprayed, and her run in the game came to an unceremonious end.
Afterward, there was a brief celebration, and though he admitted to feeling a little bad — “She was bummed,” he said — there was no time to dwell on feelings.
On the drive home, Bevilacqua and the others were already contemplating his next target, a hit that, most everyone agreed, would require a very smart and well-thought-out plan.Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett.