Chapter 14. Christmas Present
Two more months flew by unnoticed. Among school, drill practice and chores, the passage of time didn't feel so drastic anymore. When I finally came to notice, I had completed six months in the Crimson Lake Camp for troubled youth. I had made many friends and many memories. Little did I know that those memories would pale in comparison to the ones that were yet to be made....
The date that I realized I had feelings for Croy was December seventeen. Our winter break had just started. The relationship between Croy and I had gotten even more complicated than before, but we were still inseparable. We went everywhere together and did almost everything together. As the days went on, I spent more and more time with him. The more time I spent with him, the fonder of him I grew. Croy was kind, gentle, talented and incredibly smart, but I couldn't allow my feelings for him to surface. He was the first boy I had ever liked, but I wasn't exactly the perfect match for him. I had decided long ago to put those thoughts and feelings of romance aside, in order not to trouble him. Even though I held such feelings for him, I never let those feelings interfere with our friendship. He was my closest and dearest friend. There was no way I was going to ruin that because of a stupid crush.
At least, that's what I had grown to believe. A few more days passed quietly after my realization. It was December twenty-fourth, Christmas eve. I was working late in the field that night, setting up the equipment for the next day's drills. It was around eleven o'clock at night. The sun was long gone and the breeze had begun picking up. I was nearly done with my chores, when I caught a glance of someone sitting on a nearby, grassy hill that faced the quiet woods.
It was Croy. I paused what I was doing when I caught sight of him and walked over to where he sat so pensively. I stood next to him quietly for a few minutes as he sat there unmoving. He was lost in his thoughts. "Hey...What are you doing out here at this time? Is everything ok..?" I asked him, a bit concerned. He sighed lightly as the breeze blew softly through his lovely, blond hair. There was no moon in the sky that night, but his skin still glowed under the starlight. He turned and looked at me, a sad expression on his face.
"Three days from now, it will be the anniversary of my mother's death. He said in a barely audible whisper. "The day right after my birthday, on the twenty-seventh..." he trailed off sadly as he looked up at the stars. "That's right." I whispered to myself. "Croy's birthday is in two days and I've been so busy, that I forgot to make him something. Some friend you are..." I scolded myself angrily. "Hazel..?" Croy turned to me, a serene look on his face.
"Do you know why I'm not too worried about spending my birthday here this year?" He asked as he turned his head slightly and looked at me with gentle, unfaltering eyes. "No why?" I asked him curiously. "Because I have you to keep me sane..." he trailed off gently as he looked away. My face flashed pink when he said that. He was sitting on the grass, leaning backwards slightly. He had all of his weight on his arms. He wore a white T-shirt and his usual baggy, army colored cargos His hoody was tied around his waist.
He had one of his legs bent and the other out stretched. His pale face glowed handsomely under the starlight. "Even though I have friends, ever since I came here, I've always felt alone. But since I've met you, I haven't had a single lonely moment. It's as if you've filled the void that I've been harboring deep inside my heart for almost ten years. Not only are you my best friend, but you're so much more than that Hazel...” He said as he flashed me a crooked smile. I felt my heart ache longingly, when I saw him smile. His beautiful words made me blush unwillingly. After a few seconds, he stood up gently and held his soft hand out to me.
I looked at it hesitantly. "I promise I won’t bite." He said as he caught on to my hesitation. After a few minutes of gathering my courage, I lightly placed my hand in his. "I want to show you something" he said in a whisper as he took my hand and led me slowly towards the woods. My face was red the entire time we were holding hands. I could feel his warmth, embrace my fingers as they lightly entangled themselves in his. We walked a little over ten minutes in complete silence. I had never been happier. Just being with Croy alone, was more than I could ask for.
After a few more minutes, we finally reached an unfamiliar clearing. I gasped softly as I laid my eyes on it for the first time. The unfamiliar clearing was actually the edge of the beautiful "Crimson Lake." The same lake that could be seen from the lovely meadow. It was definitely more entrancing up close. The star-filled sky was reflected perfectly in the crisp, tranquil water. It was like an enormous, flawless mirror.
The water was so clear that the pale sand could be seen at the bottom, as well as the colorful guppies that scurried about underneath the surface. "Wow..." I whispered, astonished. "How is it that you always know about the most amazing places?" I asked him absent mindedly. Croy chuckled at my still, amazed expression. "Well, you don't live here for ten years without having some tricks up your sleeve. Besides, this is just below the meadow I showed you. See?" he said as he pointed up at the familiar cliff. "Oh.... so this is a trick huh?" I asked him in a teasing voice. Croy's cheeks flashed light-pink under the starlight. I chuckled softly at his embarrassed reaction. "Actually, you're the first person I have ever brought out here with me, so it’s not really a trick, more like a secret that I want to share with you."
He said as softly as he turned and walked over to a small dock, where an old canoe was tied to a wooden post. I followed close behind. When we reached the dock, Croy walked onto it slowly and carefully took a step into the bobbing canoe. After he made sure it was safe to get on, he held out his hand for me to take. I hesitated. "Come on..." He whispered in a hair raising voice. His eyes glowed lightly under the starlight. I sighed wearily as I felt my heart skip nervously. He made it so hard to resist anything he asked of me.
After a few seconds, I took a deep breath and placed my shaky hand in his. Suddenly, I felt as he pulled me up briskly and helped me step into the canoe. It was a bit hard to balance on, but I quickly got the hang of it. After I managed to regain my footing, I made my way over and sat on one of the cold, wooden planks that rested inside the tiny boat as Croy carefully took the oars in his hands. He then leaned over and untied the canoe from the post. "Are you sure this is safe?" I asked him a bit concerned as the canoe began floating away from the dock. Croy sat back down quickly and re-positioned himself and the oars. "Of course. I would never do anything that would risk putting you in danger."
He said smiling serenely. He then took the oars into both hands and began to row. I blushed shyly as I looked at his graceful, powerful form. "God he's handsome..." I thought to myself silently as I gawked at him. As we floated by slowly, ripples began to break the stillness of the clear water. The stars were reflected so perfectly underneath us, that it felt like we were flying in a beautiful dream together, just me and him. After a few minutes of rowing slowly, a large rock-like hillside rose in front of us. It was covered in heaps of flowery vines and plants that were draped lazily over it. Croy kept rowing unfalteringly towards it.
"Uh Croy I think we’re getting a little too close to that hill or mountain or whatever that is…” I stuttered nervously as we inched closer and closer. "It’s ok. I know what I'm doing, trust me..." He said, his blue eyes sparkled in the starlight. I closed my eyes nervously as we continued to inch closer. When I saw we were about to collide with the rock, I clenched my eyes shut and braced myself for the shock. After a few seconds, I felt something lightly brush by my face. I opened my eyes and saw strands of flowers and vines brushing over us like a gentle curtain, revealing the entrance to a magnificent cave.
The cave was full of small, crystal-like rocks and formations that reflected light into the cave, making everything glow. It was the most amazing thing I had ever laid my eyes on. "Wow..." I whispered in awe as I basked in the magnificent beauty that I was beholding. Croy simply smiled silently. After a few more minutes, we reached a large rock ledge that stopped our canoe and prevented us from moving any further. We hit the ledge with a small thud. "Stay here." Croy said as he got up carefully and climbed onto the rock ledge.
He then pulled the rope around a stalagmite that grew from the cave floor and tossed it back to me. "Tie this to the canoe and make sure it’s tight." he called out to me. I did as I was told and tied the piece of rope to the canoe as tight as I could manage, to make sure that it wouldn't float away. After I was finished, he leaned over and held out a hand to help me out of the rickety canoe.
I took hold of his hand and placed an unsteady foot on the slippery, rock ledge as I tried to power my way up and out of the canoe. When I managed to climb out, I placed my other foot on the slanted side of the ledge. I didn't notice that there was a slightly sloping rock that was covered in algae. Although I was holding Croy's hand, I still lost my balance as my worn out boots, slipped out from under me. I lost my balance and fell over unwillingly. "Ahh!" I screamed softly as I felt myself fall sideways. I closed my eyes just as I landed on a warm and sturdy surface. I heard Croy chuckle lightly as I opened my eyes and saw him holding me.
My cheeks flared bright red. "Whoa, are you ok?" he whispered as he held onto me gently, his arms around my torso. I could feel his heart beating close to me. I looked up at him and blushed deeply. I thought my heart was going to pop out of my chest. His arms tightened gently around me as he embraced me. He let his perfect chin rest on my head softly. I let myself sink in his arms as the warmth of his embrace, engulfed me. Time seemed to slow down, almost to a stop as Croy pulled his face away softly from my head and he looked at me gently. I gazed back, shyly.
Unwillingly, my eyes came to rest on his perfectly tempting lips. I felt my face glow red when I remembered the night in the field. I shook my head quickly as I tried to get rid of the embarrassing memory. "Hazel..." His whisper brought me back to reality. "Yes?" I whispered back shyly as I glanced up to see that his face was inches away from mine. I froze in place when I felt his warm, sweet breath, wash over me. Croy leaned in slowly and touched my nose to his. I felt as my heart nearly exploded. Having him so close was sending chills down my spine. My eyes began to feel heavy as he inched closer to my lips. I saw as his eyes began closing as well.
Our lips where about to meet, when suddenly, a chill ran down my spine and made me shiver, immediately breaking the spell. "Come on" he whispered as he pulled away softly. I felt his warm breath caress my lips as he spoke. After that he, let go of me and took my hand in his. "Let's go, it's much warmer inside." He said as he began walking and led the way deeper into the enchanting cave. We walked silently next to each other for less than a few minutes when finally, we arrived at our destination.
"We're here..." he said as he smiled and helped me over a small rock wall. As he pulled me up, I saw lights flickering wildly on the cave ceiling. They were bright and danced like cheerful fireflies. When I finally managed to see what they were, I was left speechless. There was an underground lake, with a beautiful crystal-filled clearing. The water was so clear and blue, it looked like a filtered pool. There were beautiful arrays of rocks and crystals that made the ceiling look like the starry, night sky.
We made our way carefully down the rocks, towards the beautiful lake. When we reached the bottom, I sat down and stared at the magnificent beauty of the water. I glanced at Croy, who was smiling brilliantly. After a few minutes, I saw as he turned around and began taking off his clothes. I blushed when I saw him remove his white t-shirt, revealing his perfectly chiseled stomach. "What are you doing?" I asked him nervously, as I covered my eyes. He laughed at my nervous and innocent reaction. "I want to show you something. Come over and jump in with me." he said as he held out his hand to me.
He stood in front of me like a shirtless God. I thought about it for a few seconds. "Won’t it be cold?" I whispered meekly as I glanced at the glistening water. "It’s not as cold as the showers we're forced to take." he said as he uttered an amused chuckle. I stood up and made my way to where he was standing. After a few minutes of hesitating, I started to take off my hoody. I was about to take off my shirt, when suddenly Croy stopped me. "No, don't take your clothes off. You’re a lady and no man should see you undress unless he's your boyfriend or your husband..." he trailed off as he untied his green hoody from around his waist.
He picked up his white t-shirt and hoody and looked away as he handed the garments to me. I paused wearily. "What should I do with your clothes?" I asked him a bit bewildered. "Put them on, so you won't get your uniform wet." He said without looking at me. "But then your clothes will be wet." I said a bit concerned. He shook his head quickly. His eyes were still closed. "I don't care, just put them on okay? When you’re ready, I'll be waiting in the water." He said as I took the clothes from him. Even though he still had his baggy cargos on, he made a quick run and jumped into the water with a loud splash. When he emerged from the water, he turned his back to me and waited patiently for me to get dressed.
I undressed quickly all the way down to my underwear. I then pulled on his baggy t-shirt that fitted me like a night gown. Then I put on his green, pull-over hoody ontop of the white shirt. His clothes where nice and warm and they smelled like him. After I put my shoes back on to protect my feet from rocks, I took a deep and anxious breath and rushed into the water. "Ok..." I stuttered as I stood on the edge next to him. There was a small ledge where we were standing. Underneath the crystal clear water, you could see how the lake got deeper as it went farther out. Croy turned and took my hand gently in his.
"Follow me." said in a hair raising voice, as we both took a deep breath and dove in. Croy held my hand as we swam deeper and deeper. The crystals lit up the water, making it sparkle and shimmer all around us. It was like swimming through a rainbow. The small fishes swirled happily around us. Croy picked up a small crystal and showed it to me. It glistened like a diamond. I continued holding my breath. I saw him gesture in the other direction, where a clearing was visible, not too far from where we were. Apparently, there were underground passages that connected the underground lake to other smaller caves.
Croy let go of my hand and swam ahead of me to lead the way. I was almost to the other side, when I felt something tug sharply at my foot. I looked down to see that my untied shoe lace had gotten caught in between two, small crystal- like rocks. I pulled frantically as I tried to get my shoe out of there, but the harder I pulled, the more air I used up. I tried to take my shoe off, but the rocks that were pulling on the lace tightened it instead. I began struggling frantically as I realized that I was almost out of air. My lungs felt like they were going to burst. After almost a minute without air, I couldn't hold my breath any longer. I let the air out in a big whoosh, causing water to rush rapidly into my lungs. Everything began looking blurry as my head began to spin rapidly. The last thing I remember, was seeing a bright flickering light, rushing towards me.
"Hazel. Hazel! Hazel!" I heard my name echoing in the distance. "Hazel! Breathe! BREATHE!!" the voice sounded closer and louder. I tried to open my eyes, but everything was blurry. "Please! HAAZEL!!" I felt like I was floating. I looked down to see myself soaking wet, laying down on the cave floor. My eyes were closed and my lips were pale and blue. I saw Croy leaning over my unconscious body with his hands on my chest. He was pressing down and counting. Every time he pressed down, I felt my heart thump forcibly within my own chest. "What a strange dream" I thought to myself as I saw him lean in over my face and place one hand on my nose and the other on my chin. He then placed his lips over mine and blew air forcibly into my mouth.
After that he resumed pressing on my chest. "Please! Don't you dare leave me! Hazel Please! I haven’t told you how I feel about you! I haven’t told you everything I need to say, Please!!" his voice broke as I saw tears well in his eyes "Hazel!!" his panicked scream echoed harshly through the cave. Suddenly, I felt like I was falling, like whatever was helping me float, suddenly let me go and I came crashing back to earth. I felt my body jump at the impact of me hitting the floor. My eyes shot open as water gushed from my mouth and nose. I gasped for air frantically. I coughed violently as more water poured out of me.
"Hazel! You’re alive!" Croy screamed in relief as he hugged me tightly. His eyes were red and watery. It looked like he was about to cry. "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry!" he said, his voice a mixture of relief and panic. "Don't apologize, it’s my fault for not tying my shoe laces" I said weakly as I coughed again. "It’s my fault, it’s my fault for bringing you here. If it hadn't been for me, you wouldn't have almost drowned..." he said as he let go of me and turned away from me, his face sad. He entangled his hand in his matted hair. "Croy, if it wasn't for you, I wouldn’t be alive. Thank you...” I whispered gratefully as I leaned in and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Croy's face turned dark red, which made his freckles stand out even more.
He looked down at the wet floor for a few seconds as he hid his blushing face underneath his shaggy hair. After a few minutes more, Croy took a deep breath and turned back to face me. He held out a closed hand to me. "Here, this is why I brought you here, because I wanted to give you this. It’s my most prized possession. It was a gift from someone very important to me, who helped me through my toughest time and even though he's not with us anymore, I still think of him as my best friend..." He said as he opened his hand and revealed the most beautiful pocket knife that I had ever seen. "I want you to have it..." He said in a whisper.
I sat there in silence. The knife had a blood red, wooden handle, with a golden dragon carved onto both sides. The dragon held a silver pearl in its' mouth. When the pearl was pushed, it revealed a shiny, four inch blade. "Merry Christmas..." he said as he handed it to me. I stared at the beautiful blade as I took in its beauty. My heart felt like it would float away with happiness. "Thank you..." I whispered to him happily as I put the blade away and held the knife tightly, close to my chest. "It’s beautiful. I just wish I had something to give you..." I said sadly as I looked down at the wet floor. Croy took my hands in his. "Are you kidding? You have already given me everything Hazel..." he said as he took one of his hands and lifted my face to meet his gaze.
"Just by being alive, you've given me everything I could ever ask for." He said as he trailed off sincerely. We stared longingly at each other for what seemed an eternity. After a few seconds, I felt my face blush again as Croy pulled me lightly towards him. He leaned in carefully, aiming to close the distance between our lips. I could feel his sweet breath pour over my face as he neared my quivering lips. He closed his eyes gently, just as I began to close mine. I could nearly taste his lips, when suddenly, a loud hiccup interrupted our moment. "HIC! HIC!" I couldn't stop hiccupping. I felt my face flare red with embarrassment.
Croy looked at me bewildered at first, then with a big grin on his face, he broke out into a bout of boisterous laughter. "You are definitely the cutest girl I have ever met ha-ha!" He said as he shook his head and began to stand up. My cheeks were brighter than pink. "Now how about we start heading home. It’s starting to get a little late. the sun will rise soon and if we are caught out of curfew, we will get into massive trouble." He said as he flashed me a crooked smile. I nodded softly.
After that was said, Croy told me to wait there by the edge of the lake. The new passage we had ventured into, led to large Crimson Lake outside. Croy went back the way we came and took the canoe around the cave. I waited patiently as I stared at the beautiful knife I held in my hands. When Croy finally made it around, he tossed me my dry clothes and looked away as I got dressed. When I was finished, I made my way over and joined him on the canoe.
As we rowed back to land, I noticed the stars were starting to fade, and that the sun was about to rise. The row back was quiet and tranquil. The only sound that could be heard, was the rippling of the water as we drifted by. When we made it back to camp, we rushed back through the woods and made it just in time before the bell rang to wake up. When we got to the cabin, each of us rushed to our prospective showers and began to get ready for drill practice. As I got ready, I thought about how lucky I was to have met Croy and how even luckier I was, to have been able to spend Christmas Eve by his side. After we got dressed in our uniform, Croy and I both rushed outside for another day of endless chores.