Sunday, January 20, 2019

Hidden Paradise


“This is my secret place, Jackie. My hidden paradise,” Sarah looked around at the dark recesses of the woods around us. As if in anticipation of an unseen enemy lurking in the bush, under a rock or beneath a tree bough. “No one can know about it!”

“Okay, okay.” I mean, what could I say to that? We’d only known each other for a few days and really, she was the only friend I had at the moment. My father had left the picture when I was little and mom, having put herself through school, while working at a diner and raising me alone had graduated and taken a paralegal position here in the South. I wasn’t exactly excited about the move, but I was behind her all the way. Besides, a change could be good for both of us.

“Seriously, Jackie.” I hated being called “Jackie”. It’s a girl’s name for Pete’s sake! But Sarah had overheard mom calling me that on our first day here at Frog’s Hollow. And since she was the only one around my age to talk to, I let it slide. Besides, there was something different about her. Something magical. At thirteen, she was only a year younger then me with long, black hair and large almond eyes. Her skin was so creamy smooth I ached to caress it. Not at all like the girls in my old school back in Chicago.

“Promise me. Swear the that this’ll stay between us.”

“Alright, alright, I swear!” I mean geez, what was the big deal?

I watched as she reached into a dark brush and pulled back some of the bushy twigs. Inside was a pathway hidden beneath the rocky outcropping above. In she slipped and disappeared completely as the brush switched back into place. I stood there stunned for a moment until the branches parted again and out popped her head.

“You coming?” Her excitement was so palpable, it compelled me to bend over and follow her into the secret path. Down the dark trail we crouched as it was not quite high enough to fully stand up. After a short while the pathway opened on a hidden pond covered in lily pads. All around the lush, green clearing, there were flowers growing I had never seen before. The pond looked cool and inviting under the sweltering Louisiana sun. And Sarah, sweet, beautiful Sarah was beaming from ear-to-ear. What was it about this girl? Why was I so drawn to her, as if by some mystical force?

“What do you think?” She was dancing in the grass, twirling with her arms outstretched.

“It’s beautiful!” I meant it. It truly was the most wonderful place I had ever been.

“Come!” She grabbed my hand and pulled me to a clean rock overlooking the pond. A heat built inside me like the sun, pulsing photons though every pore of my body. I wobbled dizzily from the intensity of it. Thankfully, Sarah didn’t seem to notice.

“This is where I come to see the fairy prince.” She was shaking with excitement.
Poof! I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Fairy prince? Was she mad? Had I gone crazy for falling for a girl with fairy delusions? The ache in my stomach slowly slid into my legs.

“Sarah, really…a fairy prince?”

“You don’t believe in the fairy world?” She looked confused, and maybe a little hurt. “Of course, you don’t believe. What was I thinking?” She turned away from me, dropping my hand like it had suddenly gone hot. “I thought you were different. I thought maybe you could see the world as I do. The world within the world.” In that moment, the heat of the morning became oppressive.

A splash broke the sullen silence. We both turned to see the cause. There on a huge lily pad sat the biggest frog I had ever seen in my life. It was forest green and mottled all over its top. The underbelly was milky and slightly translucent. An odd deformation of its head revealed a bumpy, amber mass with three spikes, the largest of which stood in the center.

“There! You see?” Sarah’s excitement exploded across the glade. “Tell me you see, Jackie!” She wheeled around and grabbed my forearm with both hands grinning and looking expectantly into my eyes. I hesitated. Even though the hairs on my arm were rising again at her touch, I could not allow myself to fall into her fantasy. I mean really, a frog?

“I… see a bullfrog.” But my hesitation and refusal to accept her fantasy failed to quell her spirit. Invigorated by the sight of the amphibian and determined to win me over, she leaped to animation once more.

“He’s not just any frog. He’s the fairy prince. Can’t you see his crown?” If that deformity on its head could be considered a crown, sure. But instead of voicing this, I stammered.

“Sarah, it’s…he’s…”

“Look.” She put her fists on her hips and stared down at me like a disappointed mother. Lord knows I’d seen that look a million times before. “Around these parts it’s well known that a kiss from the fairy prince will reveal your one, true love.” Oh, my God! One true love? What is she talking about?

“But Sarah, that’s a fairy tale! For children. It’s not real life.” 

She tsk-ed at me as if I had somehow gone dense at the moment.

“All great fairy tales have their roots in reality. I thought you knew that much, at least.”

I just sat there dumb-founded that this remarkable girl was so matter-of-fact over what, to me was childishness.

“I can see you aren’t convinced.” Resolution flooded her demeanor. “I’m just going to have to prove it to you.” 

She turned and strode toward the pond. At the edge, she whispered some words at the frog. I couldn’t hear for a strange buzzing in my ears that filled the glade. Cicadas, I unconvincingly told myself. Sweat beaded on my skin and the air thickened around me. I noticed a log floating near her and imagined an alligator. Mom had warned me about the alligators, so my inner alarm was rising.

The creature leapt from the pad and with fly-catching speed Sarah reached out and snatched it from the air firmly planting a kiss on its head. Time slowed as I watched her slip on the slimy rocks within the pond and fall over cracking her head against the floating log. She fell face-first into the water. The cicadas stopped their screeching. The frog had disappeared.

I jumped up from my perch and dove in after her completely forgetting that, as a city boy, I had never learned to swim. In the moment, it didn’t matter. I reached around her waist and rolled her over to me. Carefully keeping her head above water, I drug us both out onto the soft grass. She didn’t appear to be breathing. I checked her pulse and couldn’t find it. I opened her mouth and looked for anything blocking her throat. Tilting her head back just a wee bit, like I had been taught in my CPR class back home I pinched shut her nose and breathed into her mouth. No response. I did it again and then, observing no response, began chest compression. Three short pumps.

I called out to her several times. “Come on Sarah! Come back to me!” Then I held her head and nose again and breathed once, twice and then once more into her. A slight gasp escaped her throat and her hands started to move. I drew back still holding her head in my arms. Her eyes fluttered open and I watched as her initial dazed look slowly turned to wonder.

“You.” She reached up and caressed by cheek. “Of course, you. How could it not be? You, with all your skepticism and grown-up ideas.” 

“Me? What do you mean?” 

“I was dead, and you brought me back to life with a kiss.”

I couldn’t help myself. Those deep, dark eyes. That electric sizzle on my cheek. The joy I experienced just holding her in my arms. I was a goner. She had somehow won me over and I would gladly trade ten years in the real world for ten minutes in hers. Bemused, I grinned and shook my head at her, scooped her gently into my arms and carried her up and out of that little hidden paradise.
 
It’s been fifteen years now, but I remember like it was just yesterday. A living fantasy that I pray will never end. From that day to this, we’ve rarely spent a moment apart. A marriage, a mortgage and two children of our own and she’s still the most magical woman I’ve ever known. A true fairy princess in every way. Sometimes in the quiet moments I imagine that old frog winking at me as he leapt away. Is it a memory or did it really happen?

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