The haggis and potato for lunch sat heavily in our bellies as we drove into the Scottish highlands that afternoon. It was already October, and tourist season had recently passed, but the hills we rolled along, up, down, and wove between, were still a brilliant shade of emerald. A hushed rain had begun to fall and drifted slightly inward, so we pushed our windows shut, and those of us from warmer climates shivered in the unheated school bus, hugging ourselves tight. A few shacks dotting the landscape aside, we were the only intrusions into the highlands’ startling loveliness. I looked outside and counted sheep — actual sheep — grazing along the lone road we traveled on, and fell asleep.
When I woke up, you were there, in the unoccupied seat across the isle from me, as if materialized out of thin air. I thought to myself drowsily, what a beautiful boy. You had large, dark eyes, I suppose; deeply set in creamy skin. A few strands of soft chestnut hair peeked out from beneath your knitted cap. You sat facing me, long legs dangling off the end of the seat, absorbed in a worn paperback, and when you sensed a pair of eyes on you, you looked up. I couldn’t be sure whether you’d smiled at me, for I blushed and looked past you, pretending to be looking at the scenery. Just then the bus drove between two hills into a beautiful open plain. The rain had stopped, and a rainbow ran from where we were far into the distance. Loch Ness shimmered ahead of us, the remains of an ancient castle slouching on its bank. With this, memories of modernity, of even the cafeteria we’d had lunch in just hours ago dropped away. Everything beyond took on a romantic, mythic air, and when I finally swung my eyes back inside, so did you.
A group of boys, refreshed, rowdy and boisterous, began to strip away their clothing even as our group disembarked and walked toward the lake. Their jackets, shirts and sweaters scattered in piles upon the bank of Ness. I feared you might join them, and break the spell I was under, but you fell in step with me instead, and shook your head reassuringly at them. Other girls stood about the bank, or clamored towards the castle ruins. I felt glad you weren’t one of the boys now hooting at the coldness of the lake as they waded in, egging each other on to go just a little farther, until all we could see of them were dark or fair heads, bobbing in the water. When the tour guide called out to them, they came eagerly back toward shore, shivering in earnest now with their white boxers clinging to their butts, and basked in everyone’s shock and attention at what they’d done.
When it came time to go back to the bus, you said to me, “Wait a bit,” and we stayed behind as the others wandered back to the bus. We looked across the landscape for a moment, then you took a picture of me against the setting sun. It seemed significant that the hills were there, along with the lake, the castle and the unblemished golden sky. We ran to catch up with the group, giddy and flushed. The bus started and we bumbled along the road we’d come on, now buoyed by our collective awe. Something life-changing had just happened, we’d all tell our families in a few months, but we couldn’t have expressed it just then. It felt warmer in the bus now, out of the chilly lake breeze, with you right next to me.
That night we slipped out for a walk after dinner, when we were supposed to be in the reading room, near the welcoming fireplace. The streets surrounding our hostel were dark, terrifying, but I instinctively wanted to be with you. There weren’t smartphones then, and we had no use for them. We merely walked on, confident that we’d either find our way back, or someone would find us. You took my hand, as if only not to lose track of me. I thought better of it, but let my hand remain in yours.
When we came finally upon a bench next to a street lamp and sat down, our arms and legs somehow not distinct, I had the sense that what was to happen was both inevitable and transient. I turned to you with my eyes closed, at once puzzled and encouraged by my emotions. I felt your hands on my face, my heart thumping harder and harder, then your hands left. I opened my eyes and saw that you’d taken something out of your pocket. You handed it to me — your driver’s license. A 16-year-old girl smiled at the camera and at me, her messy brown curls piled around her chubby, pale face, cascading past the cheap bead necklace on her neck. Next to the picture was your name. Kathryn Burke.
Of course I’d known, ever after the first brief sleep-addled moments. I suppose I wanted to forget, and Scotland had allowed me to be hopeful, however briefly. My mind seemed intent upon playing a trick on me, for even after you’d told me your name was Kat, I’d seen how you appeared to me when I’d just woken up, as a beautiful boy.
I handed the ID back to you and closed my eyes again. I waited until once more I felt your hands caress my face, brush my bangs away, until I felt your lips on mine, softly, carefully, as delightful as a tickle, as beautiful as I’d imagined it to be since I first set eyes on you.
Photograph by Bethany LeggHire An Editor