by Pati Nagle
“That’s the spring?”
Holly stared at the oblong concrete box in the forest glen. It looked like a coffin. A coffin full of water.
“Yep,” said Madison, unslinging her pack from her shoulder. “That’s Enchantment Spring.”
Holly glared at her sister, feeling cheated. She’d pictured a beautiful little pool surrounded with wildflowers, water flowing out of it down the hillside. Dragonflies dancing on its surface.
Mad sat on a sunny rock and opened up her pack, taking out the sandwiches they’d made for lunch. “I think they built that box in the fifties. Trying to make it safer or something. I forget.”
Holly stepped up to the concrete coffin. Moss grew on its sides. The water in it came right up to the top and was clear, so it must be circulating out somehow, but she couldn’t see where. At one end she could see a tiny, round opening like a drain. Maybe that was where the water came in, or went out.
She took off her own pack and went to join her sister, handing her a bottle of ginger ale. Mad smiled and brushed her curling brown hair back from her face.
“Thanks. Warm today.”
“You’re getting used to Colorado.”
“The weather’s not that different. It’s the tons of people that are strange.”
“You like people.”
Holly bit into her turkey sandwich and glanced over at the spring while she chewed. It wasn’t Mad’s fault that it was disappointing. She hadn’t promised anything, just suggested that they hike up to the spring, since Holly had never seen it.
Mad had come up here years before with her Girl Scout troop. Holly hadn’t stuck with scouts past Brownies. Making scrapbooks and stuff with a bunch of other girls just hadn’t interested her. She’d rather read.
She watched Mad eat her sandwich. The short haircut still looked strange. Mad liked it; said it was easier to take care of, and she was so busy with classes. College seemed to agree with her. She liked Boulder, was thinking about majoring in geology with a chem minor to make her more employable. She was happy.
Holly wasn’t unhappy, exactly, but she wasn’t especially looking forward to graduating. She liked it here, in Las Palomas. Small town, mountains right there. Starry sky at night. Not too many people.
She had one year of high school left. Her parents were bugging her to think about college.
Mad’s whispered tone warned her to be quiet. She looked at Mad, who nodded toward the spring.
A bluebird sat on the edge of the box, dipping into the water. As she watched, three others fluttered down to join it, lining up in a row on the concrete, their fat, fluffy bellies cream and orange, eyes round and black.
Holly smiled. OK, that was cool.
She finished her sandwich, moving slowly so as not to startle the birds. When a scrub jay came zooming in the bluebirds took off. Two tiny goldfinches came to drink, along with a mess of little brown birds in various sizes. They all flew up in a batter of wings when Madison stood.
“Want to hike on up to the raspberries, or are you ready to head down?”
Holly shrugged. “Either way.”
She packed up her trash and walked over toward the spring while she finished her ginger ale. Sunshine gave the water a slight golden hue, almost as if it were glowing. She dabbled her fingers in the coolness, letting her thoughts drift. Glanced up at the dappled canopy of sunlit leaves overhead. They were green still, but they’d start turning soon.
Looking back at the spring, she caught her breath. There was someone in it.
A young man, eyes closed, long hair drifting beside his face. His clothes were the same golden hue as the sunlit concrete. Had she just not noticed him earlier because of that?
Was he dead?
She stared at him, fascinated and horrified. He was beautiful; chisled cheekbones, flawless skin. Movie-star beautiful, except she couldn’t picture him as an actor. He looked too perfect.
She squeezed her eyes shut, then opened them. He was still there.
“Come over here!”
Madison looked over her shoulder. “What?”
Holly glanced at her sister. “The guy in the water. Don’t you see him? I didn’t at first—his clothes blend in—”
“Holly, there’s no one in there.”
Mad was serious. She didn’t see him.
“Touch the water.”
“Come on, Holly.”
“No, I mean it! I saw him after I touched the water.” Holly dipped her hand into the spring again to demonstrate, waving it back and forth.
The young man opened his eyes and looked at her.
Holly gave a small gasp. His eyes were amazing; deep, deep blue. As he gazed back at her, her heart tried to fly up out of her chest.
“There is no one in the spring. Come on, kiddo, let’s head home.”
“Mad, just try it—”
But Mad had already slung her pack over her shoulder and started down the trail. Holly looked back at the spring. The guy was still watching her.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
His lips parted as if to answer. A rock flew past Holly’s shoulder and bounced off the edge of the concrete. She turned, angry.
It would turn into an argument if she didn’t go. Mad had that impatient edge to her voice.
Holly glanced at the guy in the spring. “I’ll come back.”
His face softened into a slight smile, causing her stomach to flip over. God, he was gorgeous!
Biting her lip, she hurried after Madison. When they were kids, Mad had never wanted to hear about Holly’s imagined playfellows—fairies and phantoms in the woods. She would always do this, bustle Holly off somewhere else. It was as if Mad was afraid of Holly’s imaginary friends.
This one wasn’t imaginary, though. Holly had grown out of that. This guy was real.
And not human. How could he be human? He lay in the water without breathing. He appeared out of nowhere.
What was he?
For the rest of the day Holly thought about him. All the way down the trail, back to the house, doing her chores. She couldn’t get his face out of her mind.
At supper she sat thinking about him while her folks and Madison chatted about Boulder. Finally her mother touched her arm.
“Are you feeling all right, Holly?”
Holly blinked at her. “Fine.”
“You’ve hardly touched your supper.”
Holly looked down at her plate. “Those sandwiches we had for lunch were pretty big.”
Mom’s dark eyes looked worried, so Holly picked up her fork and ate a couple of bites of enchilada. It was one of her favorites, but she just wasn’t interested tonight.
“There’s going to be a college fair at the high school Friday night,” said her father. “Maybe we should go check it out.”
Holly shrugged. “Sure.”
School wouldn’t start for another couple of weeks. She had plenty of time to think about college. Not so much time, she realized, to figure out the guy in the spring.
“May I be excused?”
She caught her parents trading a glance, one of those worried looks. Mad must have said something.
“There’s coconut pie for dessert,” said Mom.
“Sounds great. Could I have mine later?”
Mom sighed. “All right, honey.”
Holly stood and kissed her mom’s forehead, then carried her plate to the kitchen. She put her leftovers in a container, poured herself a glass of water, and went to her room to hit the Internet.
A search for “man in water” didn’t yield much useful information. “Man in spring” was worse. Pressing her lips together, because it was acknowledging the total weirdness of the situation, she typed in “being in spring.”
Mythology links poured onto her screen. Naiads, water spirits, elves even. Apparently mankind had been seeing magical beings in springs and wells for millennia. Of course, no one believed that stuff nowadays.
Holly scanned an article about naiads. It didn’t quite fit; they were always women, at least in Greek mythology. Sprites were so loosely defined that anything could fit.
She sat back, staring at the computer screen. What was she doing? Trying to find a realistic explanation for what she had seen among the snippets of ancient myth on the web? Come on, Holly.
She shut down the computer and went out to the living room. Everyone was watching TV—some crime investigation show. Holly slipped past the screen and out the back door onto the patio.
The smell of honeysuckles lay soft on the cool evening air. The sky was clear and dark, pricked with a thousand stars. The moon hadn’t risen yet. Holly brought the telescope out from under the porch roof and set it up, then scanned for the Horseshoe Nebula.
The screen door creaked. Holly glanced toward it and saw her dad, coffee mug in hand, glasses glinting softly in the starlight.
“Anything good in the sky?”
Holly stepped back from the telescope and with a gesture invited him to look. He bent to the eyepiece for a moment, then straightened.
“Nice. You know, Tech has a good astronomy program.”
“I thought you said astronomy doesn’t pay.”
“Well, it could if you took a physics minor. Got into one of the big labs.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Holly bent to the lens and adjusted the focus, sharpening the stars. Somewhere nearby a dog barked three times, then was silent.
“Anyhow, money isn’t the most important thing. You should major in something you love.”
They’d had this conversation before. Would probably have it again. Holly wasn’t in the mood tonight. She had other things on her mind.
A beautiful face. Deep blue eyes.
“Everything all right, hon?”
Straightening, she turned to her father. “Yeah. Why?”
He shrugged. “You seem pretty quiet this evening.”
Her eyes had adjusted enough to the dark to see the worry on his face. Mad must have told him about the spring. Holly bit down on annoyance.
She shifted the scope, searching for something she wanted to look at, but remained unsatisfied. Her dad stayed watching for a minute, then went back inside. Holly felt a little bad about that—she could have been more friendly—but she wasn’t ready to talk to her folks about the guy in the spring. If Mad didn’t believe her, guaranteed her parents wouldn’t.
Could she have imagined it?
Her heart screamed no. Her brain wasn’t so sure. It might have been a hallucination or something. That had never happened to her before, but …
She frowned, disliking the seed of doubt that had sprouted in her thoughts. He had looked so real, but maybe he wasn’t. Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Really, really realistic wishful thinking.
Holly put away the scope and went inside, going to the kitchen for a glass of milk. Mom’s coconut cream pie sat on the counter looking luscious, but she wasn’t hungry. A tight little knot had formed in her stomach.
She wasn’t nuts. She hadn’t hallucinated. The guy in the spring was real.
She chugged her milk, rinsed the glass, and headed for her room. Tried to read for a while but couldn’t get into the book, and finally gave up and got ready for bed.
As she lay staring at the glow-in-the-dark Milky Way and stars on her ceiling, she played through everything that had happened at the spring in her mind. Birds. Sunlight on the mossy concrete, glowing in the water. The young man’s smile as she promised to come back.
Well, she would. Tomorrow. Alone.
She walked through a forest filled with falling leaves. They were still green, but drifted down from every tree in a gentle cascade, like snow. Beside her a stream trickled uphill, growing wider the higher she climbed. It was almost a river by the time she reached the glen where she and Mad had eaten lunch.
It was bigger, more open, with a giant, golden pool in the center. The stream flowed into this, climbing over rocks to fade into the quiet surface of the pond.
The young man stood beside the pool, smiling. “Thank you for waking me,” he said.
Holly stared at him. Tall and slim, dressed in pale silk that clung to his limbs, hair spilling over his shoulders and down his back, he was like nothing she’d ever seen.
“Why were you sleeping? Were you under a spell?”
He laughed. “A spell? No. The dabblings of sorcerers do not affect me.” His smile faded as he looked around the glen. “I have been weakened, though. I do not know the cause.”
“So … who are you?”
“I am the guardian of this spring. My name is Ohlan.”
“Ohlan.” It sounded like a sigh as she said it. “I’m Holly.”
“Holly.” He smiled. “Your namesake grows in the woods near my home.” He gestured toward a broad rock, like a bench, beside the water. Sunshine and the shadows of the falling leaves dappled the golden stone.
“Will you rest here a while?”
Holly sat on the rock, and Ohlan sat beside her. His movements were graceful, flowing. The sunlight rippled over his clothing. She wanted to touch him, to see if he was real, even though she knew she was dreaming.
He gazed at her, blue eyes drawing her in. “It has been a long time since anyone talked to me.”
“My sister couldn’t see you.”
“Most humans cannot. They are unwilling to look into the heart of the spring.”
“That’s all it takes?”
“That, and being willing to see.”
Holly trailed her fingers in the pool. The water was crystal clear. A tiny, dark fish darted up to her hand, then away again. Rocks lay scattered on the sandy bottom, a myriad of gold, green, and shades from grey to black.
She glanced at Ohlan, who still watched her, softly smiling. Feeling shy, she gazed into the water again.
“How long have you lived here?”
“I came into being with the spring, many hundreds of years ago. After the mountain settled into sleep.”
Holly looked up sharply. These mountains were formed by a volcano that fell dormant millennia ago. That would mean Ohlan was thousands of years old.
“You’ve been here all this time.”
“Yes. I have walked all over these mountains. Watched people come and go.”
“You must have friends—other, um, spirits? Because there are other springs up here, right?”
Ohlan nodded, looking troubled. “I have not ventured far from here recently. My strength wanes the farther I go from my home.”
“Has it always been that way?”
“Not so much as now. I do not know why, but I am always tired now. I sleep for many days on end.”
Holly’s heart went out to him. “I wish I could help you.”
He smiled again, and she felt herself tuning to jelly. Ohlan was just what she had always dreamed of: a boy—man? spirit?—who was beautiful, gentle, and kind. Who seemed to like her.
A bluebird flew onto her knee and chirped at her. Thanks for the reminder, Holly thought. I was about to forget that none of this is real.
She swallowed, looking at Ohlan. “May I come and see you? For real, I mean?”
“Will I see you?”
“If you want to.”
She wanted to see him, touch him. Be his.
Was that crazy? He wasn’t human. He’d been alive forever. Maybe he thought humans were amusing little creatures that drifted by once in a while, like butterflies.
“Ohlan … have you ever been in love?”
His eyelids drooped as he smiled. “Many times.”
She stared at him, caught by his beauty, unable to look away. His eyes filled her awareness, twin pools of deep water, widening to swallow her. She was drifting now, no longer sitting. Cool blue depths surrounded her. She reached out, hoping to catch hold of something—anything—but there was nothing to grasp.
by Pati Nagle
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-142-9