Sean stared down helplessly at the engine of his car. Shit. He didn’t know one part from the other- he was no mechanic. All he knew was that the car wouldn’t start no matter how many times he turned the key and prayed. He couldn’t understand it. He’d had the car in for servicing only last week, and the mechanic had assured him that it was running great.
He’d pulled over on the shoulder fifteen minutes ago to watch the sunset over the Pinelands, and turned off the engine simply to enjoy some peace and quiet along with the view. There was no reason at all that it should be dead now; it didn’t make sense.
Well, thank God for AAA, that was all he could say- assuming, that is, that he could even get a signal on his cell phone here in the middle of nowhere. Sean reached into the pocket of his black leather jacket, and felt for the familiar small rectangle of metal. It wasn’t there. Oh fuck, he thought, giving himself a mental head slap. He didn’t have his cell phone with him. He’d left it behind at the apartment- his pathetic way of rebelling against too much control in his life. And now he was royally screwed. He had no way to call AAA or even, if he could bring himself to deal with the shit that she’d give him for being so stupid, Chris.
Sean closed the hood of his silver BMW and got back in the car, huddling into the soft leather of the driver’s seat, welcoming the comfort of its familiar embrace. It was growing cold now that the sun had nearly dipped beneath the horizon, and the wind was starting to pick up. It had a bitter-sharp edge to it that cut right through his jacket and white dress shirt like a knife. The weather report he’d listened to on the radio a little while ago had said it was going down to the teens tonight, with a chance of snow flurries. Definitely not the right night to be stranded in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.
Frowning, he considered his options. There weren’t many. He’d driven this route through the Pine Barrens many times, and he knew it was some miles yet before the first real signs of civilization appeared- one of the ubiquitous Wawa’s that sprouted up like mushrooms at every sandy intersection, and a Sunoco gas station. If it was summer, he probably wouldn’t have to wait too long before a carload of eager beachgoers came along, headed for the Jersey Shore and a day of sun, sand and sea. But at the end of January? He couldn’t recall passing or being passed by a single car since he left I-195 and began driving the quiet back roads through the heart of the Pine Barrens toward Long Beach Island.
Why can’t you just stay on the highway, Sean? He could hear Christine’s impatient voice in his mind from the last time they had driven down to the beach house. These woods give me the creeps. If we ever broke down out here, we could be murdered, and no one would ever find out what happened to us. They’d probably throw our bodies in a cranberry bog, for God’s sake.
Probably not the best line of thinking, under the circumstances, Sean decided with a touch of grim humor. Mysterious deaths seemed to be a New Jersey specialty- look at Jimmy Hoffa. As for that episode of the Sopranos… he decided not even to go there.
The light was fading fast. Sean opened the glove compartment and found the flashlight he kept there for emergencies. He pushed the switch and nothing happened. Shit. It was dead. He didn’t understand it; he’d checked the batteries last week, and it worked fine. He was anal about stuff like that. He tried it again. Nothing. Took the batteries out and put them back in, double and then triple checked that they were facing the correct way. Nothing.
He sat there at a loss for a few more minutes until it occurred to him that he could at least tie something white to the side view mirror as a distress signal. He leaned over into the backseat and pulled his overnight bag toward him. Unzipping it, he found a white undershirt. That ought to do.
He opened the car door and got out again. Jesus, it was cold. It felt as if the temperature had dropped several degrees just in the short time he’d been sitting in the car. He tied the shirt around the mirror with fingers made clumsy by the cold. There. It would be hard to miss that, if someone drove past. He blew on the bright pink tips of his fingers. Shit, he thought again. He didn’t have a pair of gloves with him, much less a hat or scarf. In the rush to get away, all he’d packed were a spare pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, underwear and socks. Now here he stood with only his leather bomber jacket, jeans and running shoes, plus a thin shirt and socks, as a barrier between him and the freezing cold. Way to go, Astin. He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and surveyed the woods around him.
He looked carefully for lights or a driveway, for any sign that might indicate a house or business. He’d never noticed either on this stretch of road, but then he was usually zooming by at 60 miles an hour. He’d read in a book once that people lived tucked away in isolated spots in these woods. Pineys, they were called, natives of the area who kept themselves to themselves and didn’t welcome outsiders into their world. He didn’t see anything, though, except for the endless reaches of pitch pine trees and scrub-oaks dwindling into the distance. Desolate. The forest appeared desolate, and barren of life. Chris hated it, but he’d always found the Pine Barrens starkly beautiful. Completely unlike any place he had ever been in his life, and he had traveled all over the Far East, Europe and the U.S. on business trips.
The sun had nearly disappeared behind the trees now; the sky was deep indigo, purple and red that silhouetted the contorted, fantastical shapes of the pines in an almost surreal manner, as if they were part of an Impressionist painting come to life. Stars were beginning to appear, astonishingly bright to Sean’s city-trained eyes. You never saw the stars like that in the City, Sean thought. Way too much light pollution. He knew very little about astronomy, but he could pick out the constellations of Orion and Cassiopeia and the Pleiades from the myriad pinpricks of white, and the bright five pointed beauty of Venus rising over the trees.
If he was one of those intrepid explorers of old, he supposed he would be locating the pole star and steering by it. Steering to where, Sean, his mind asked sarcastically, the middle of a cedar swamp? God, he was completely unequipped to deal with a situation like this. He’d never so much as attended a single Boy Scout meeting when he was young, true child of the city that he was.
A sudden gust of wind caught the shirt, and it fluttered and flapped as if it was some trapped wild bird struggling for release. Sean shivered. He could see his breath, a dense white cloud that lingered on the frigid air. It was definitely time to get back into the shelter of the BMW.
But the interior of the car, though warmer than outside, was growing colder, too. The dark gray leather felt stiff and unyielding, slow to warm around him. God, he would give anything to be able to use the heater.
Sean began to feel the first faint stirring of panic, and tried desperately to squelch it. Stuff like this didn’t happen to people nowadays, he reasoned, not for long anyway. After all, it was 2006, not 1906, and there were cell phones, and GPS, and the Internet, and… How long he sat there, shivering and fighting panic, he couldn’t have said, when something on the opposite side of the two-lane road caught his attention.
Was that a light? He squinted hard. It was! There was a light in the woods, a faint but steady gleam of bright yellow that to Sean’s eyes was like a beacon of hope, blazing forth. Oh thank God, someone did live here, someone who would hopefully be willing to let Sean use their telephone to call for assistance, and maybe even let him take shelter from the cold while he waited for a tow truck. Relief swept over him in a wave. He was saved.
Sean quickly pocketed his wallet, and zipped his leather jacket as high as it would go, snug beneath his chin. He got out of the car and hesitated, wondering if it was safe to leave his car. What if someone did pass by, spot the abandoned vehicle and break into it? But the light appeared to be only a couple hundred yards away, if that. He was being ridiculously overcautious, just as Chris always accused him. Decided, Sean locked the BMW with a beep of the remote, pocketed the key and hurried across the road and into the woods.
The ground was almost pure sand here and littered with pine needles; it squeaked beneath the rubber soles of his running shoes as he walked. There was no sign of any path, and he had to force his way through the thickets of dwarf pine trees and scrub oaks standing shoulder to shoulder like a rank of soldiers guarding a fortress.
These weren’t soft yielding fronds, Sean discovered as he pushed at them, but stiff pointed branches that snagged his clothing and tore at his face and hands. He hadn’t gone fifty yards through the trees when he felt a warm trickle of blood on the back of his right hand from a deep scratch; it began dripping down over his fingers. Gritting his teeth against the pain, Sean pushed on, deeper into the forest, his native stubbornness not allowing him even to consider the idea of turning back. He wasn’t about to let some stupid trees get the better of him, god damn it.
The resinous odor of pinesap was everywhere. The sap was probably getting all over him- on his clothing and even in his hair. His jacket would be ruined at this rate, scratched and stained, and it had been ridiculously expensive, a Christmas present from Chris. Take care of it, Sean, she’d admonished him as if he were a child. He felt his blood pressure rise at the memory.
But Chris’s reaction to his ruined jacket soon became the least of Sean’s worries. Distances must be very deceptive in the forest at night, he realized, for he didn’t seem to be making any headway. In fact, if it wasn’t a completely crazy notion, he’d have said the light was retreating before him, drawing him ever deeper into the darkness of the pinewood.
Concerned, Sean finally halted. He turned and looked behind him. All he could see were the dim outlines of the trees; the road and his beemer were lost to view. He began to feel disoriented. Had he walked in a straight line? Or had he veered to the left or the right? He couldn’t tell. If he tried to go back to the car now, he might get hopelessly lost- if he wasn’t already. He bit his lip and considered the situation. But there appeared to be no choice: he had to follow the light. At least the constant movement was keeping him warm.
Other than his own panting breathes as he struggled on in pursuit of the elusive light, the forest was silent. The wind that had been soughing in the pines had died away. For the first time the word eerie crept into his mind. Living in the city, noise was a fact of life; it was incessant and ubiquitous- you couldn’t escape from it if you wanted to. The silence now was unsettling, creepy even, as if it presaged…
Stop it, Sean berated himself. Anyone would think you’re a teenager in a bad slasher movie, and the theme from ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ is going to start playing any moment.
Even as the thought entered his brain, an unearthly shriek, high and shrill, rent the night air, and sounds of something crashing through the undergrowth- something like a large bad-tempered animal, maybe- came from behind him. Sean was seized by a sudden, panicky feeling that he was a teenager in a bad slasher movie. He took an apprehensive look over his right shoulder, and saw twin points of red glowing like the fires of hell in the dark and the vague outline of horns and large leathery wings like a vast oversized bat. Holy shit! He didn’t wait to see any more. He turned and bolted, running for his life. The whatever-it-was gave another high-pitched, blood-curdling shriek and Sean didn’t have to look again to know it was chasing him, and he felt certain its intentions weren’t friendly.
OhJesusohjesusohjesusohjesus… Sean fought and struggled, cursing the trees and bushes that caught at his clothing and impeded his progress through the woods. He kept expecting any moment to feel fetid hot breath on the back of his neck or razor sharp claws slashing at his jacket. He had no clue what direction he was heading, or where the light was now, or if he was running toward it or away from it.
The red-eyed creature, whatever it was- and oh god, he was sure he knew what it was, and the knowledge scared the shit out of him- was still behind him, emitting that unearthly shriek at regular intervals, and the crashing noises were growing closer. Jesusjesusjesusjesus… Sean felt as if he was moving in slow motion, the way one did in a nightmare, only… this wasn’t a nightmare. Ohshitohshitohshitohshit…
Then, unexpectedly, the trees ended; sobbing for breath, Sean staggered into a small clearing. His momentum sent him pitching forward, and he went down hard on his knees in the sand, breaking his fall with the palms of his scratched and bleeding hands. Dazed, he remained on all fours for a moment, while pain from a stitch in his side lanced through him. But, tempting as it was, he couldn’t remain here. The thing would be on him any moment… He started to scramble to his feet- and then froze, gaping in disbelief. There in the center of the clearing, not ten feet in front of him, stood a stag.
A white stag.
The ivory velvet of its coat shone in the starlight with the luster of a pearl, and it bore on its proud head a magnificent rack of antlers that looked as if they were carved from highly polished ebony. Steam billowed in clouds from its flared nostrils as it tossed its head, snorted, and pawed at the sandy ground with one restless hoof.
Sean stared and stared, utterly mesmerized. He had never seen anything so beautiful or so magical in his entire life; the white stag was a creature straight out of a fairy tale. He must be hallucinating, Sean thought wildly- but nothing had ever seemed so real. Small beads of moisture clung to the whiskers of the stag’s muzzle, and fine tremors shivered along its flanks; its ribcage rose and fell with each breath. Surely if he was hallucinating, he would not be noticing such details?
The creature chasing Sean had apparently halted at the sight of the stag, for the sounds of pursuit had stopped, but he could hear it hissing and gibbering behind him as if in a towering rage. It sounded almost as if it was speaking words, but in some language Sean could not understand. He wanted to turn and look, to face his enemy, but his attention remained riveted on the stag.
Still snorting, it was lowering its head like a bull preparing to charge. He could see the ripple of sleek skin as the stag’s muscles bunched. It sank back onto its haunches, gathering itself. The sharp deadly points of its antlers were aiming straight at Sean. Oh dear god, he was caught between the hammer and the anvil with no means of escape. As the stag sprang forward with a powerful surge of its hindquarters, Sean cowered down and covered his head with his arms, praying as he’d never prayed before in his life…
…and felt a rush of cold air on the back of his neck as the stag vaulted over him, and the soft patter of sand kicked up by the stag’s hooves raining down on his jacket. It had jumped clear over Sean without so much as grazing a hair on his head. The stag squealed in rage, and the unearthly shriek of the whatever-it-was rent the air yet again. There was a scuffling noise, as of two bodies making contact, more squealing and shrieking, and then sounds of retreat that grew fainter and fainter, until at last they dwindled completely away, and the forest was quiet once more.
Sean lowered his arms and cautiously raised his head. The adrenaline rush of his mad flight through the woods was fading, and he felt sick and shaken as he climbed stiffly to his feet. The scratches on his face and hands stung with the cold. The white stag was still there, standing with its front legs slightly splayed and gazing fixedly in the direction the strange creature had disappeared. Sean could see a hint of some dark liquid gleaming on the tip of one antler. Even as he looked, a droplet fell to the ground, beading in the cold sand. Then, with a toss of its head, and a snort, the stag wheeled to face Sean.
They stared at each other. And, odd as it was, Sean had the strangest feeling he wasn’t looking at a wild animal at all. The stag’s dark eyes appeared almost human as they met his, as if it understood everything that had happened. If the animal had opened its mouth at that moment and spoken, Sean wouldn’t have been shocked. But it did not speak. Instead, it did something even more surprising. It sank slowly to its knees in the sand, and lowered its proud head in mute invitation.
A ride, Sean realized in shock, it’s offering to give me a ride.
He didn’t even hesitate, but limped to its side. He was trembling, from the cold or shock, or both, and aching in every muscle. He wasn’t certain how much longer he could remain on his feet. Through chattering teeth, he forced out the words, “Th-th-thank y-y-you,” as he eased one leg across the stag’s broad back, wincing a little at the pain the movement caused, and sank down. Then he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around its neck. Only then did the stag surge to its feet in one swift motion while Sean, who had never in his life been on the back of horse, much less a stag, held on for dear life.
Sean continued to cling to the stag with a near-stranglehold as it began to walk then gradually trot across the clearing, and onto a narrow path that led deeper into the woods. The stag’s body was warm, radiating heat that seeped comfortingly through Sean’s jeans. He buried his cold face against its neck; the smooth fur was as velvety soft as it looked, and smelled like pinesap, and dried grasses, and wood smoke. Its scent was not at all unpleasant, and he would have expected a wild animal’s scent to be so; but Sean was discovering this night that nothing was as he would have expected it.
How long they traveled, Sean could never afterward say. He lost all sense of time and direction, and fell into a sort of waking trance, exhaustion and shock overcoming him. He was only dimly aware when the stag finally came to a halt. With an effort of will, Sean forced open his bleary eyes, and he saw that it had stopped in the front yard of a house, a large log cabin with warm light streaming from its windows, and curls of smoke rising from a stone chimney.
The white stag had carried him to safety.
The stag lowered once more to its knees, using the utmost care, as if it was aware of Sean’s deteriorating physical condition. Sean slid off its back, so weary and sore now that he could barely manage that much exertion. “Th-thank y-you,” he forced out the words again. The stag turned its head and looked at him, and Sean gasped, for its eyes in the light from the windows… but the world was beginning to spin around him, telescoping in on itself, and becoming a black hole, drawing him down inexorably into darkness.
As Sean lost consciousness, his last coherent thought was that the stag’s eyes were, impossibly, blue.