The spring bubbled as a gentle breeze rustled the leaves above and the undergrowth around the pool. The clean smell of damp earth and fresh spring growth filled the air.
Daniel laughed as yet another splash of water struck him from a completely different corner of the pool this time. Looking in the direction from which the splash had arisen, he caught a glimpse of movement.
"Come out and play," Daniel whispered.
A giggle sounded from near the place where he'd seen movement only a moment before.
"What did you say, Daniel?"
"Shhh," arose a small, hissed admonishment from the undergrowth, rapidly followed by another musical giggle.
"Nothing," five-year-old Daniel called back to his mother, who gathered morels with his father a short distance away.
"Try not to get too wet, Daniel."
Daniel smiled at his mother, who smiled back, before moving toward the next mushroom. As soon as she looked away, Daniel felt another splash of water hit him.
He turned back, his brown hair whipping, and could see the ripples on the other side of the pool dissolving into its roiling surface. He kicked with his feet, splashing back, and heard soft, bubbling laughter coming from an entirely different quarter of the pool.
The game continued until Daniel's father declared it was time to return home to fry the morels. Daniel turned and waved to the opposite side of the pool, and thought he saw just a hint of his shy playmate peeking out to wave back.
"Why not, Mom?" The now eleven-year-old Daniel pouted.
"Sweetie, for the same reason as it's been the last dozen times you've asked. It's not safe for you to go play in Mr. Johanson's woods any more. People dumping their old trash and things just make it too dangerous to go there. You could cut yourself on a broken bottle, or an old washing machine. Who knows what sorts of things are down there, now."
"Why do they do that, Mom?"
Sighing, she stooped down to hug him. "I don't know, Daniel. Some people just don't care. They dump their things there, because Mr. Johanson is too old to watch out for them. If they take them to the dump, they have to pay. It doesn't cost them anything to throw things over the hill, so they end up in the woods at the bottom."
"Somebody should make them stop," Daniel grumbled. Going to the pool in the woods were some of Daniel's fondest memories for the first nine years of his life. Then, the county had started charging to pick up trash, and people began throwing their junk everywhere. As soon as his mother saw the mess, she'd never taken him there again.
"You're right, dear. Maybe your father and I will find some people to help clean it up for Mr. Johanson, and put up some signs at the top of the hill by the road. We'll see if we have time, okay?"
"Okay, Mom. Can I go to the creek, then? There's no junk there."
"Okay, but don't get too muddy, and you make sure that you can hear me. You answer me right away when you hear me call you for supper."
"Okay, Mom," Daniel called over his shoulder as he ran out the back door toward the creek behind the house.
Running across the yard and the field beyond, Daniel hopped over the top of the hill to sail down toward the creek. He hit the ground again and stumbled down the rest of the way, just avoiding a tumble into the narrow creek.
Daniel poked the water, watching the crawdads and minnows swimming away from him. All the while, he thought of his special friend in the woods. He'd not seen her - he assumed it was a girl, by the way she laughed - very often the last few times he'd been in the woods. In the last two years, he hadn't seen her at all, of course. He'd crept toward the wood on many occasions, taking advantage of the low hill that obscured the edge of the property from the house. Once as close as he dared to go, he'd called out to his friend. She'd never answered him, and it made him sad.
His mother had told him that he was imagining things - that there was nobody living in the wood. As time went on, and he didn't see or hear his playmate, Daniel started to believe his mother. She'd said it was an imaginary friend, who seemed very real to him, but that there was simply nobody there.
Glancing toward the wood - something he'd not done in quite some time - Daniel thought, I'll just go try to call to her one more time. If she doesn't answer, then I know she's just pretend.
Nodding his head to emphasize his decision, Daniel ducked down low and jogged at the base of the hill, circling around toward the woods. When he neared the trail leading into the small stand of trees, he looked around to make sure nobody was around.
Satisfied that nobody else was close, he called out, "Hello?"
He waited a minute or two, and then tried again. Letting out a sigh of frustration and disappointment, Daniel turned back toward the creek. He stopped, and thought, Maybe she can't hear me.
Biting his lip, his blue eyes darting between the wood and the roof of the house, Daniel considered creeping into the woods closer to the pool. He knew he'd get in trouble if he got caught, but he didn't think his mother would be calling for supper too soon. He could sneak into the woods, try once or twice, and then run back to the creek in plenty of time.
Thinking that his mother might check up on him, Daniel crawled on his belly to the top of the hill and peeked through some tall grass toward the house. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw his mother hanging the first shirt from a basket on the clothesline. If he hurried, he'd have plenty of time.
Walking quickly down the trail, Daniel hurried toward the pool. Although he'd originally meant to stop before entering the clearing with the pool, he couldn't help himself, and stepped out into the dappled sunlight filtering through the canopy above.
Daniel frowned as he took in the sight. It was far worse than he remembered from the last time he'd been here. There were rusting appliances everywhere, and the whole place stank like garbage. Ripped plastic bags were scattered for as far as he could see, and he saw mice and other small animals fleeing from the garbage piles. A shimmering layer of oil floated on the pool, and though the rainbow patterns were somewhat pretty, Daniel wished the water were still clear so he could see the fish swimming all the way to the bottom again.
He called out half-heartedly, but he knew that nobody would answer. Even if his friend hadn't been pretend, nobody would come here any more.
Dragging his feet, Daniel walked back to the creek. After a minute or two, he returned to the house. Watching the fish just wasn't fun any more, after seeing the mess in his favorite place.
"That does it. Good job, guys," Daniel said to the gathered Scouts as they picked up the last of the garbage bags piled near the trail. He could hear the grunts of the Scoutmaster, his father, and some other men who had volunteered as they loaded up the old rusting appliances and bigger things, preparing to haul them away.
Noticing two maple sprouts growing right next to each other, Daniel knelt down next to them. He remembered hearing that if nurtured properly, sprouts like this could grow together - becoming one tree. Thinking it would be something neat to memorialize this day, he carefully bound them together with some twine.
Picking up the last two bags, Daniel followed the rest of his troop up the trail. Once there, they tossed their bags in the back of one of the trucks. Daniel looked back at the woods and smiled. For the first time in five years, the wood was clean again. Actually, the whole area was cleaned up. His project was the last of several that he and a pair of friends had organized as part of the requirements to qualify for the rank of Eagle Scout.
It would stay clean, too. The county police were all former scouts, and they'd immediately agreed to help out with the project. After several nights of watching along the county road, they'd issued dozens of illegal dumping citations, and not a single bag of new trash had appeared in months.
Daniel sighed, realizing that the trash was probably just being thrown somewhere else now, but at least he'd done what he could.
Old Mr. Johanson got up slowly from his lawn chair, where he sat with Daniel's mother. "Thank you, Daniel, my boy. I hated seeing the woods like that, and I couldn't do nothing about it. I ain't the only one happy to see it, neither. Folk are saying they're glad to see everything all cleaned up again. Maybe that they can hunt mushrooms again. Fitting thing for Earth Day too, I'm for thinking."
"I'm so proud of you, Daniel," his mother beamed.
"Hey, what about me?" Daniel's father said with a laugh while wiping sweat off his brow with the rust-stained sleeve of his shirt.
"I'm proud of you too, Darling," she laughed back.
The Scoutmaster clapped his hands and shouted, "Good job, Scouts! Now, let's get cleaned up and back in the van. I'm taking everyone out for pizza. It's not very often that we have three Scouts make Eagle in one year - let alone at only sixteen - so we're going to celebrate."
A whoop of approval went up from the assembled scouts, and they hurried toward the house to wash up.
Daniel sighed, and walked away from the tent. His father patted him on the back, and Daniel turned to take one last look at Mr. Johanson's grave. It was hard to believe the jovial old man was gone. He'd been in poor health for as long as Daniel could remember, but he'd just kept hanging on, all the way to age ninety-nine.
"Clean living, my boy," he'd always said when asked how he'd come to live so long. After which, he'd take a drag off his cigarette and another pull off his bottle of whiskey.
Daniel smiled, remembering that old man Johanson wouldn't allow others to take up his vices, though. It had been his elderly neighbor that had caught him smoking the first - and last time - at fourteen. "Boy, those things will kill you. I'm old, crotchety, and I've got some injun blood. I'm too tough and stubborn to die. I ever see or hear about you touching them again, and I'll tell your folks before you can turn around!"
Not really having enjoyed choking on purpose anyway, Daniel had heeded the advice. He'd also avoided numerous temptations to drink, deciding that he'd wait until he was of legal age, and then give it a chance.
Now, two days before Daniel's eighteenth birthday, the old man was gone. He was like a third grandfather to Daniel, and it really hurt to know that Mr. Johanson's laughter wouldn't ring out from family get-togethers any longer.
"Excuse me. You're Daniel, aren't you?"
Looking over, Daniel saw a man approaching. "Yes, I'm Daniel."
"I'm Steven. William was my father. I'm sorry I had to meet you under these circumstances. He talked about you all the time. I just wanted to let you know something. It won't be official until his Will is read, but he left you that woods between your property and his. I talked about it with the rest of the family, and we all agree that his wishes should be respected."
Stunned, Daniel muttered, "I don't know what to say."
"Just take care of the place. Is that rope swing still there? We put that up when we were kids."
Daniel shook his head, "No, it broke when I was little. One of the older Willis boys, Thomas, tried to swing on it, and it snapped."
"That's too bad. Probably best it's gone, though. Dad said you were the one who cleaned it all up. I went down there a couple of Christmases back. I'd seen it when it was all trashed up, and you did a good job. It brought back a lot of fond memories, and I'm glad to see it looking good again."
"It was my favorite place as a kid too," Daniel responded with a wide smile.
"Just take care of the place. I hope you don't mind if I bring my grandkids down there every once in a while. They're too young now, but they'll be able to appreciate it once they're out of diapers." Steven laughed, hearing one of the aforementioned children let out a screeching wail of excitement.
"Of course. Just take only pictures..."
"And leave only footprints. I was a Scout, too. I never made Eagle, though. I've always regretted that, a little." Seeing his wife beckoning him, Steven held out his hand to shake. "I need to get going. We have to get everything set up at the house. You will come by, won't you?"
"Of course," Daniel replied, shaking his hand.
"We'll see you there, then."
Daniel sat with his back to the intertwined maples, looking out over the spring-fed pool. He always came here when he needed to work through things, and he certainly needed to now.
Now he owned two pieces of property, and he wished he didn't own either of them. He'd trade the house, the woods, and all that land to have his parents and old man Johanson back again.
Daniel wiped his eyes on his shirt sleeve. He had decided to move back into the house when his mother died. He couldn't bear the thought of selling the place, and he certainly couldn't afford to keep it and his apartment on what he made.
Normally, he'd be out planting trees. It was a ritual he'd adopted the year after Mr. Johanson's funeral. He'd died on Earth Day, and Daniel had thought it a fitting tribute to a man who'd lived so long. Thinking about it today, however, had reminded him of his mother's death two months before, and his father's less than a year earlier.
"Why are you sad? It's a beautiful day."
Daniel started upon hearing the voice, and managed to slip around the slender trunk of the intertwined trees in the process. He fell back and cracked his head on a protruding root of one of the larger trees.
"Ow," Daniel muttered, sitting up and rubbing his head. Looking around, he couldn't see anyone. He knew he hadn't imagined the voice, though. "Hello?"
"Why are you sad?" The voice asked again. Daniel knew it was a woman, but he didn't recognize the voice.
"I'm remembering people who have passed on. Who are you? Where are you?"
"It's only natural. You should celebrate their life, not mourn their death." The musical voice rang out from a different part of the undergrowth beyond the pool this time.
"It's not that easy," Daniel disagreed, staring hard into the ferns beyond the pool, trying to see who was speaking.
"Why not? They were nice people. I liked them."
She'd moved again, but when Daniel turned toward the voice this time, he saw her moving behind the ferns. He caught just a momentary glimpse of a beautiful face framed by hair the color of new leaves. "You knew my parents?"
"And the funny old man," the voice laughed.
"How did you know them? How do you know who I'm thinking about?" Daniel asked, standing up. He saw a glimpse of her again, and heard a rustling as she moved quickly away.
"The old man used to come here and talk to me. Your parents brought you here, and you played with me."
The memories washed over Daniel, and his mouth dropped wide open. After a moment, he stammered, "Y-you were my imaginary friend?"
"I'm not imaginary."
The voice had the unmistakable sound of an indignant pout, and when Daniel turned toward it, he caught his longest look at her yet. She was certainly pouting, and stunningly beautiful. When she moved again, his eyes widened, as he saw her retreating bottom and realized it was bare. Her bottom was just as pretty as her face.
"I'm sorry," Daniel quickly said. "That's just what my parents told me. When I came back later and I never saw you again, I assumed they were right."
"Stinky things befouled my pool," the woman pouted. "I didn't want to come out, even to play with you. I felt very bad."
"My name's Daniel," he said, scanning the thick ferns for her.
"I know that," she laughed.
"Xantina. Are you still sad?"
Daniel pondered her question for a moment, and realized he did feel better. He actually felt a little light-hearted. "Sort of," he replied.
"Play with me," Xantina said, and giggled.
"Like when I was a kid? You want me to sit by the pool?"
She only laughed in response.
Shrugging his shoulders, amazed by how much his mood was brightening, Daniel took the few steps down to the edge of the pool and sat down. When he looked down to make sure he wouldn't be sitting on a stick, he felt water splash his face.
Xantina laughed, and rustled back into the undergrowth.
Chuckling, unable to help himself, Daniel took off his shoes, keeping his eyes roving over the thick vegetation. He kicked into the water, splashing it toward the opposite side of the pool - in the last place he'd heard her laughter.
"You missed," she laughed. From a little to the left, he heard her add, "Thank you for taking away the stinky things."
"Why haven't you talked to me before? Since we cleaned up the woods, I mean."
"You grew up. Big people are always afraid of me."
"Why did you talk to me today, then?" Daniel splashed again.
"You missed again. You were sad, and it's a special day."
Raising his eyebrows, he said, "You mean Earth Day?"
He actually managed to see her before the splash hit him this time. Although her voice was somewhat girlish, her ample breasts declared her to be anything but. "You're very pretty," he said, unable to think of anything else to say.
"You're pretty too," she laughed.
Daniel could see the silhouette of her, just beyond the nearest fronds. As the breeze caused the plants to sway, he could see tantalizing glimpses of her skin and her beautiful face, beyond the obscuring foliage. "You live here?"
"I'm always here. This is my place," she replied, remaining in the same place.
"Do you mind me coming here? I don't want to intrude."