The first summer she met him, she thought he was one of the camp counselors, trying to avoid having to teach people to swim, or trying to get out of being the recipient of a hundred badly-made friendship bracelets from adoring little girls.
Sure, swimming in the lake was fun – the first couple of times. Learning how to make friendship bracelets was fun, too – until you’d made about ten of them in all the colors of the rainbow, and all the other girls kept asking you to make one for them please because they couldn’t get the upside-down-V to look right and they kept messing up and the string was tangling in their fingers and how were her bracelets so straight and flat while theirs were all twisty?
Though, she imagined that camp might have been more fun if her friends had not suddenly decided that she was devil’s spawn. It wasn’t like she’d deliberately gone after Jordan – he was the one who had come after her. He was the one who had tried to force a kiss on her. Of course, Marie had picked the very moment he’d managed to trap her against the bed to walk in. Then she’d run away crying, Jordan had escaped, and now all the rest of the girls in the camp had decided that Myste was a boyfriend-stealer.
It wasn’t even like Marie had even told Jordan she’d liked him.
And Myste definitely didn’t like him. Gross. Not even the fresh river water had been enough to wash out her mouth.
After being left out of all the games and sports and ignored like she had some disgusting zit on her face (she preferred to think of herself as some disgusting bug, actually), she’d decided that she would rather hang out by herself, than let herself get blamed and teased and bullied for something she hadn’t done.
So what if they didn’t listen to her side of the story. Whatever. Camp was only two more weeks.
But to a just-turned-thirteen year-old, two weeks was a really long time. By the second day, she was tired of wandering around the woods by herself. Today, she fought back angry tears as she stalked down the trail, her chin-length brown hair swishing back and forth angrily.
It just wasn’t fair. It wasn’t her fault. And they wouldn’t hear her out – and when she continued to insist she didn’t like him, they didn’t believe her.
“But he’s so cute! Everybody likes him.”
“How can you lie like that? You guys were kissing.”
“And pick a better place to tongue-war next time, we wouldn’t want to catch you two making out in our cabin. Gross.”
At that point, she turned tail and ran into the forest. She didn’t want to hear them make fun of her any more. They were supposed to be her friends, but nobody would listen to her, everyone thought she was the mean one, the girl who stole someone else’s crush, the slut who was making out with a guy in the cabin, who-
“What’s the matter?”
She screeched at the unfamiliar voice – and the unfamiliar face that was suddenly only inches away from hers.
The sounds of something falling off the trail and into the underbrush filled the air for some long moments, sending alarmed birds into the tree canopy in a flurry of wings. More yelps, then silence, and a groan of pain.
When she could sit up again, she whimpered pathetically, clutching a bloodied-up ankle, and trying not to wrinkle her nose too much at the fresh scent of crushed leaves and fresh, damp dirt. She dashed one hand through her hair - it came out with a few small twigs and leaves, and a good smear of damp dirt.
Her fingers shook. Everything was going wrong today-
“Are you alright?”
Looking up, she glared. It was a beautiful face, one that had surprised her so much, she had lost control over her limbs for a crucial moment, before stumbling over some invisible obstacle in the trail and falling into bushes and dirt and who knew what else. She, who was never klutzy or careless at anything, even at things like racing through the school hallways without bumping into anyone, or telling the guy she was crushing on that she liked him. She, the star athlete of her class!
“You should really be more careful on the trail, you know,” the stranger mentioned casually, waving up in that direction. He was handsome, in a youthful sort of way that thirteen-year-old girls were charmed by – floppy, slightly messy black hair. Bright green eyes, almost as bright as her own blue – they sparkled and gleamed in the sunshine, with all sorts of green that shifted and flitted through his eyes as she stared. He continued, as if he didn’t notice the stunned expression on her face transforming too quickly into a hateful glower. “Lots of rocks and roots that you can trip over if you’re not carefu-“
“Whose fault do you think it was that I tripped in the first place?!” She screeched again, this time furiously.
He stopped mid-sentence, then grinned. “Well, you can’t be too hurt if you can squall that loud. Here, let me look at the leg.” Before she could say anything or bat his hands away, he knelt next to her and probed the injured area gently, checking for broken bones and minding the brave attempt to hide her winces and soft hisses.
While dabbing away the dirt with a clean handkerchief, he asked her questions, and she answered, a little sullenly, struggling to understand the weird twisting feeling in her belly. Her name was Myste; she was wandering around here because she was bored of summer camp activities; there weren’t any adults with her because she’d snuck out while the camp counselors weren’t watching, and he had better not tell anyone where she’d gone today.
The strange man – well, he wasn’t that much older than her, since the camp counselors were mostly high school or college students, and she was already thirteen – blinked, startled, then started wrapping her ankle in a light white cloth that he pulled out from somewhere. “I won’t tell. We all need time to ourselves, right?”
She nodded. He didn’t reply, simply kept wrapping. When he was done, he patted her leg gently, then helped her out of the dirt, letting her use his arm to balance awkwardly as they limped over to a nice, flat boulder overlooking the river. It was babbling, rushing over rocks and through plants and branches; sparkles from the sunlight hitting the surface made her shield her eyes, but it felt relaxing to sit out here…
It felt nice not having to feel like everyone in the world hated her.
“So what happened, really? You looked like you were going to cry, back there.”
Startled, she glanced up at him. He tilted his head to the side, inquiring, but not pressing for an answer. His eyes seemed to say, I will listen if you need someone to talk to.
Myste didn’t know why she told him – Lantis, he said his name was – but something in his genuinely concerned expression, the warmth of the smile that reached his eyes… she ended up sniffling, then bawling as the whole sorry story spilled out of her, from beginning to end. He nodded, sympathized, lent her another handkerchief, soft to the touch with an array of delicate leaves embroidered into the edge. The embroidery was almost impossibly tiny, but amazing in its detail.
They talked – about looking forward to high school, worrying about college, wishing her friends would just listen to her. Lots of things, things that she wouldn’t remember later. She only remembered that she laughed more in those precious few hours, than she had in the last few weeks since the whole Jordan-debacle began. Eventually, he glanced up at the sky, then helped her up, using a trail she hadn’t known about before to carry her up.
“Be careful on your way back.” He smiled; she blinked, then glanced away, not sure why she felt like she couldn’t meet his eyes.
“If I come back here tomorrow, can we talk again?”
His smile broadened; Lantis nodded, then shooed at her. “See you tomorrow.”
Those words like a promise; forgetting his words of caution, she ran all the way back to the camp grounds, smiling the whole way.
Only when she got back did she realize that her ankle no longer hurt. It hadn’t hurt since he’d bandaged it.
The summers of her high school were highlights of her life. He wasn’t human, that Myste was sure of – but she didn’t quite know what he was, and she was afraid to ask, not knowing if his telling her might mean she could never see him again. Every day of summer camp, she would disappear for at least an hour or two – she would run to that special place in the woods, and after a little bit of waiting, he would walk around a bend in the trail, smiling warmly.
She never told anyone her secret – or about where she would disappear to in the afternoons. It was their shared secret, hers and Lantis’s, under the warm sun and in the cool shade, with the smell of trees and leaves and river all around them, protecting her most treasured moments. At the end of every day, they always promised to see each other on the morrow; at the end of every summer, she promised to see him next year.
And she always came – always a little taller, more grown up in some way, a little more lean, a little more confident. But she never forgot her magical friend (or at least, that’s what she assumed he was), so she kept her promise, every summer, returning like a dove to a loving pair of hands.
They talked, of course, but it felt like so much more than the kind of talking she did with her friends. When she was seventeen, and worrying about college and boys and what she was going to do for the rest of her life, Lantis dispelled her worries with a few words, a gentle touch at the shoulder, a comforting hug.
"What are dreams, Lantis?"
She stared up at the sky. Eternally that light, bright shade of aqua blue, with wisps of white drifting through the expanse and slowly growing into clouds as they went. It made her want to ask questions - it made her want to know many things that she didn't understand.
Sometimes, Myste wondered what it would be like to lay under a field of stars with Lantis, in their comfortable silence.
"Dreams are wishes that your heart makes, I like to think." He had a warm voice. Myste always appreciated it, but it was times like this when she was uncertain, or wondering if her questions were stupid and silly, that it reassured her. They were like hugs, his words were.
She giggled. "Wishes that my heart makes? That's cheesy, don't you think? Quoting from Cinderella."
"Does that make it any less true?" His warm chuckle was at once inviting and thoughtful. "It's rather subjective. But dreams... well, they are what makes your life thousands of times brighter for their existence. It gives you something to chase, to run after."
Myste had become distracted. With a shout of glee, she scooped up a handful of water and splashed it in Lantis' direction. He sunk briefly, flailing at the unexpected attack.
The rest of the afternoon devolved into water fights and laughter.
Many days, they did not even talk at all - simply basked in the warm, sometimes hot sunlight, letting their bodies float gently in the river as it pruned up their skin.
Soon, it came to be that Myste told Lantis everything, a year's worth of worries spilled to him in a matter of hours. He would never judge, and never criticized, though often he would offer her advice, and she would find it difficult to understand, let alone want to put into practice. It was the simple things that he taught her to cherish.
Even things like throwing her heart into her activities. Sports became a burning passion, her competitive will blooming as she chased after that addicting euphoria of victory.
And as Myste grew older, she came to think of him as her very closest of friends... and because she only saw Lantis once a year (though to her, the time spent with him seemed worth the long wait). Though she did not know it, she came to measure her potential romantic prospects with him as a ruler. Height and looks weren't easy to match among her classmates, considering that Lantis was older than she by at least several years. Maturity... likewise.
But she confided, and took pleasure in knowing that he enjoyed their meetings as much as she did, if not more.
Once, he kissed her forehead; but she reacted so badly, blushing and scrambling to move away in her startled, mad heart-skipping nervousness, that he merely smiled deprecatingly, and slightly apologetically.
“I’m just trying to help, you know.”
“Who tries to help like that?!” She said, exasperated. He exasperated her a lot. Myste, at the tender age of seventeen, was terribly conscious of her unfeminine body – flat as a board and all lean muscles, like a boy. It didn’t help that when they did wrestling in phys ed, she’d managed to beat almost all of them.
Lantis glanced over at her, then returned to gazing up at the sky, his eyes closed. “I thought all beautiful girls enjoyed kisses.”
That was when she’d blushed, and accused him of lying , and run off in a huff, embarrassed and hot all over and more confused than ever.
Of course she apologized the next day, after they went swimming in the river (it was just deep and wide enough), but he was his calm self, as usual, nodding and smiling.
When the topic came up again near the end of summer camp, he gave her an unexpected hug, as she agonized over how strange she'd felt. She didn't tell him about the butterflies, and how that kiss had made her feel like everything in the world was so much sharper, but Myste got the feeling that he already knew.
Somehow, Lantis always knew things.
“I’m sorry that it disturbed you so much.” His words were soft, murmured in that warm, deep voice that she’d come to think of as synonymous to security/affection/safety/protection. But for some reason, this time, she felt a rush of heat fill her cheeks as his breath whispered over her ear, a shiver crawling up her spine even though it was a hot day. The warm water suddenly felt chilly.
In that crystalline, frozen moment, she realized what had happened, and coughed, managing to step away at the same time, mortified and horrified and all kinds of scared.
“I-I-I just forgot, Lantis… I have something to do. I’ll see you tomorrow!” She dashed off, water splashing everywhere, droplets of water dotting her skin and dripping ceaselessly from the ends of her hair, now spilling in lovely waves just past her shoulders. Myste’s brown locks, normally laced liberally with golden hues, became dark when it was wet; she ran a hand through the ends that had escaped her hair tie, making that promise of tomorrow thoughtlessly in her haste. He repeated the words after her, though was that… disappointment... she heard?
She was gone before she could hesitate and look back.
Myste didn’t go back the next day, nor the next after that. She was too confused, too embarrassed – she didn’t know what the tug in her chest was, and it bothered her. She always knew everything. Always in control, never uncomfortable or uncertain. She moved forward with straightforward purpose in life… and suddenly, what had previously been a childhood safety net, had become something of a quandary, a bubble of confusion in her ordered, predictable world.
Summer camp ended. She went home, her life still ordered and under her control. Her emotions wavered, then settled as time and distance soothed some of that uncertainty.
But regret clouded her heart, and made her wish that she could turn back time.
She went back the next summer, as per the promise they would have shared had she not run away. It was the summer before college, and she was more confident than she had ever been – ready to face down the challenges in her new life, the new experience of being wholly independent in a place where she didn’t know anybody. But before she could move on, she had to deal with her past.
He was a riddle that she wanted to solve.
The first day, Myste waited for hours in the sun. Every crunch of a tree branch made her twist around, her eyes alight with hope; the next moment she would twist back around, nervously, downcast but still confident that Lantis would come see her.
Evening came and went; when she went back, she was scolded for ‘getting lost’ in the woods. As if she could get lost in these trees – they were all so familiar to her.
She made the usual excuses and escaped. Trembling, Myste scrubbed off the makeup she had so painstakingly applied that morning, hiding her tears in hot spray of the shower. Naked, with water rolling down her body and down the hair that curved around her waist and arms, the young woman cried terribly for the first time of her life, feeling like her heart had shattered into a million tiny pieces, and were now piercing her chest in a thousand different places.
How had she fallen in love without knowing it?
He wasn’t even human.
Does it matter?
But if love hurts this much... she didn't know if she wanted to try again to find him.
She didn’t go back for the rest of the summer.
Nor the next summer.
Nor the one after.
Life as a graduate of college was supposed to be wonderful and exciting, but Myste had broken up with her first and only boyfriend to date, a handsome young man who had been loud and rambunctious, and nothing like the first innocent love she had cherished for years. Even if he hadn’t been her one true soul mate, she’d still cared about him.
She made her goodbyes, then drove. Hundreds, thousands of miles away from the bustling, lively city of New York, she drove back to her past.
Myste knew the way well. She wasn’t expecting anything to happen, really; she hadn’t kept her promise, and Lantis had not shown up. Punishment, or perhaps loss of faith in her - neither of which she could blame, all truth told.
That year before she’d gone off to college, she had given up, afraid to reach for love again, and never looked back. Myste remembered Lantis, but she no longer clung to his image, though he still colored many of her thoughts. Romance, life, dreams, goals, perseverance, strength... there was nothing that she couldn't remember not agonizing to him about.
She had moved on. Her heart... sometimes, she still felt that it was still here, in the trees, waiting for Lantis.
Graduation was another set of crossroads in her life, and she needed to come back to this place one more time to settle her heart, and take it with her into the new life waiting for her. But this remarkable place where she had grown up, and found someone who had listened, and talked, and played, and teased, and let her hold that childish innocence and belief of magic in her heart... Myste wondered if she could really let go.
Getting out of the car, the young woman removed her sunglasses, tipping them onto the top of her head. Her car was the only one in the parking lot, oddly enough; it was too early for summer camp, so that explained the lack of a bus, but it was strange not to see any other campers in the area.
Myste shut the door to her sleek, dark green sports car, locking the doors with a loud beep. Dark locks that now tumbled down to her waist caught a light breeze and waved gently, welcoming the fresh pine scent of the forest. She closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and sniffed.
Nothing had changed.
She stuffed the keys in her pocket and strolled slowly down the trail that would lead her towards her childhood memories.
In these trees, fresh and tall and welcoming, she still felt as if she belonged. An absence of four years didn’t change that; to this forest, time was meaningless… There was no hurt, or love, or betrayal, or grief, or even happiness. The trees watched over the forest and waited solemnly.
When hot tears rolled down her cheeks, Myste brushed them away automatically, impatiently. Could she really let go of this forest, and all that it had meant to her?
Didn't you come here with a secret hope?
Was that her mind whispering to her... or the trees?
This place would always be a good place for her, Myste decided. Forgetting... she might never be able to do. But this was an important place, and a special one.
She’d met Lantis here, after all.
Shoulders hunched, she covered her mouth to hide the soft hiccups. She'd known, really, that she wouldn't be able to convince herself to 'forget' this place so conveniently. But was it so terrible for her to want to see him again?
“Crying again, are you?”
A warm voice, a tender smile, and teasing, affectionate eyes of all the greens of the forest - it was easy to summon the picture of Lantis into her mind. Myste whirled around, trying not to hope...
Unable not to.
Lantis crushed her smaller, softer body against his, tight enough that she couldn't say any of the words threatening to bubble from her mouth - I'm sorry and I've missed you and I love you and so many other things.
He whispered to her the wish that her heart had made, four years ago.
She stopped her tears long enough to drag his head down and kiss him.