All the books and legends referenced in this story are real.
He was running blindly through the woods, running for his life. There was a monster with fiery eyes, leathery bat wings, long fangs and hooked claws close behind him. It was reaching for him... it was going to catch him any second… No, he cried out, no…
“No!” Sean abruptly awoke, gasping for breath, his heart beating frantically as he relived the terror of those endless minutes in the forest. It took a moment for him to realize that he was no longer in the woods but lying in a bed: an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room. The room was in total darkness save for the flickering light from a fire, and quiet save for the hiss and crackle of burning wood. He became aware of a presence, sitting on the edge of the bed beside him.
“Hey,” said a soft, reassuring voice, and a hand stroked gently over his hair. “Hey, it’s okay; it was just a dream. You’re safe now. Go back to sleep.”
There was such kindness in that voice, such comfort in that touch. He knew instinctively that he could trust the speaker, and that the nightmares would not return. Closing his eyes again, Sean slept.
When Sean next awoke, it was gradually, and from a deep, dreamless sleep. He felt warm and comfortable and surprisingly well rested. Bright sunlight filled the bedroom, pouring through two large windows hung with butter-yellow curtains that had been tied back to let in the light. His wandering gaze fell on a calico cat, curled up on a multi-colored rag rug in front of the cheerily crackling fire. The cat regarded him thoughtfully with its huge amber eyes for a long moment then, apparently satisfied, rose, stretched languorously, and, tail carried high over its back, strolled across the room and out the door.
As if it had been assigned to watch over me, thought Sean, amused.
He lay there for a moment longer with lassitude weighting his limbs; it would be so easy to fall asleep again. But he really ought to get up. The alarm clock on the bedside table read 10:36, and besides…
“Oh hey, you’re finally awake. I was afraid you were going to pull a Rip Van Winkle on me. Last time I checked on you, you were out like a light.” It was the soft voice from last night.
So that had not been simply a part of his dream, that soothing voice and gentle touch. Sean turned his head on the pillow. A short, slender young man dressed in faded jeans and a red plaid flannel shirt over a white tee was walking barefoot toward him across the pale oak floor. The calico cat padded by his side almost as if… No way, Sean reasoned. The cat couldn’t have gone to tell him that Sean was awake- could it?
The young man sat down on the edge of the bed, as he must have done last night, and smiled at Sean. He had the most extraordinary blue eyes Sean had ever seen: unusually large and luminous, and very, very kind. A faint memory stirred but vanished before he could catch it. Something about blue eyes...
“How are you feeling?” the young man asked, studying him carefully with his head tilted to one side like a curious bird. His face was impassive, but he was probably thinking what a wreck Sean looked. He certainly felt it.
“Sore,” Sean admitted. His voice sounded hoarse, and his throat was raw. He must’ve been screaming like a banshee last night, though he had no memory of it. He made a tentative move to sit up, and winced as his aching muscles protested. Immediately a thin but strong arm was there to support him, guiding him into a sitting position, and efficiently propping the pillows up behind him. The distinctive scent of bayberry reached his nose, subtly underlain by other scents that caused memory to stir once again: pinesap, wood smoke and dried grasses. Smoke from the fire must have permeated the young man’s clothing, Sean thought; from the hissing and popping sounds it was making, the wood that was burning in the grate was most likely pine.
A beautiful double wedding ring quilt in shades of cream, blue and gold had been covering Sean to the throat. It fell away as he sat up, and he discovered that he was still wearing his white dress shirt and jeans. They were filthy and wrinkled, and he caught a whiff of himself, and began to color with embarrassment. God, he smelled ripe. He needed a shower and a change of clothes and, his full bladder reminded him, a pee. But the nagging worry that had been lying just beneath the surface of his consciousness came to life.
“My car,” he croaked. “I left it sitting on the side of the road.”
The young man gave him a reassuring smile as he removed his arm and sat back; Sean’s eyes were drawn to the small gap between his two front teeth- unexpected and charming, like the soft auburn hair that stuck up in tufts like a kitten’s fur. “Not to worry. I drove your car back here early this morning. I hope you don’t mind. The key was in the pocket of your jacket, and you were dead to the world after I got you inside and settled. I figured I’d better get it off the road and back here as soon as possible. It probably would have been safe, but you never know.”
“But- but my car broke down,” Sean protested in bewilderment. “It was completely dead. I must have tried to start it a dozen times, believe me, and it didn’t make so much as a grinding sound.”
The young man shrugged, and lifted his hands: small hands with a curiously engraved silver ring on the ring finger of the right one. “Maybe, but it started right up when I turned the key in the ignition this morning. Whatever was wrong, it must have fixed itself. These things happen.” He sounded completely unconcerned.
“But I don’t understand…” Sean began, unwilling to let it drop. His analytical mind didn’t like mysteries, and now this, coming after everything that happened yesterday…
“Sometimes there is no understanding,” was the unexpected and very serious reply. “Not everything can be explained, you know. Sometimes events are outside our frame of reference, and we simply have to accept them.”
Sean stared at the young man. What an odd thing to say. But then again, after last night, could anything ever really seem odd again?
“Look, we can talk more about it later if you want,” said his host, standing up. “But I expect you’re probably dying for a shower. Let me show you where the bathroom is.”
“Thank you.” Sean smiled wryly as he swung his legs around and set his feet on the floor. “To be honest, I don’t know how you can stand to be near me. I’m a mess, and I’ve certainly smelled better.”
“Oh, I’ve encountered much worse, believe me.” As Sean got shakily to his feet, the young man took him gently by the elbow, and steadied him. “My name’s Elijah, by the way, Elijah Wood.”
“Sean Astin.” Sean felt absurdly weak, and was grateful for Elijah’s unobtrusive support as a slight dizziness assailed him, and the room tilted around him. God, he hoped he wasn’t going to disgrace himself and faint again, the way he had last night. The lightheadedness proved only momentary, however, and he was able to stand on his own when Elijah released his arm and stepped back; but the warmth of the young man’s touch lingered.
Sean noticed his overnight bag sitting on a cane back chair just inside the door. Well, at least he would have a clean change of clothes, he thought with relief, and he wouldn’t have to borrow from his host. Elijah Wood was shorter even than Sean and he was much thinner. It was doubtful he owned any clothes that Sean could have comfortably worn.
An impatient meow issued from the vicinity of the fireplace. “Oh, and this is Maggie,” Elijah said with an apologetic look at the calico cat, who was watching them from her post in front of the fireplace, her sphinx-like pose lending her an inscrutable air. “She doesn’t like to be ignored,” he explained, smiling.
“Oh, um, hello, Maggie. Nice to meet you,” Sean said, feeling a bit silly, but at the words, the cat rose and came to Sean, winding around his legs and purring loudly, as if in response to his greeting.
“The bathroom’s this way,” Elijah said, picking up Sean’s suitcase. Sean, his sore muscles protesting with every step, limped after him out of the bedroom and down a short hallway to an open door. “Here we are.” He set the suitcase down. “You should find everything you need, but holler if you don’t.”
“I can’t thank you enough, Elijah.” Sean felt humbled in the face of such kindness to someone who was, after all, a total stranger. Would he have been so trusting with Elijah if the circumstances were reversed? He didn’t think so, and he could just imagine Chris’s reaction if he allowed a chance met stranger to make himself at home in their New York apartment.
Elijah made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “You don’t have to thank me, Sean,” he said easily. “We take care of each other around here. Now go on and get cleaned up. When you’re done, come along to the kitchen; it’s at the end of the hall on your right. You must be starving- how about I make us some pancakes?”
“I hate to put you to so much trouble...” Sean began, but his impatient stomach growled its approval of the idea- loudly.
Elijah grinned. “Pancakes it is. Oh, and don’t mind about Fred,” he added obscurely. “He likes to hang out in the bathroom.” And Elijah walked away, Maggie following closely at his heels.
Fred? Sean looked around the bathroom warily after closing the door behind him, but he couldn’t see anyone else in sight. Thank god. He’d had a sudden mental image of some eccentric old relative lurking behind the shower curtain and jumping out with a yell just as Sean was preparing to pee. After last night, he wasn’t sure his nerves were strong enough to take another shock.
The bathroom was spotlessly clean, Sean noticed as he began to strip off his filthy clothes, and modern, too: there was even one of those heated towel racks with a couple of fluffy blue towels draped over it. He wasn’t sure what he ought to have expected, but he’d heard that the people who lived in the Pine Barrens led a primitive existence. This was anything but primitive, even if the house was technically a log cabin. Not an outhouse or hand pump in sight so far.
God, Sean, could you sound any more pompous or condescending? he berated himself in disgust as he finished undressing. It was just as he’d feared: he was starting to turn into the very thing he had always most despised: one of those smug, over-privileged New Yorkers with their fancy apartments and their fancy beachfront houses who judged people by the size of their bank accounts.
That’s why you ran away, remember?
He had just flushed the toilet when an odd series of noises caught his attention. Scrape, scrape, thud. Scrape, scrape, thud. Sean looked around, startled, and there, crossing the powder blue tile floor with ponderous dignity, was a large box turtle. Scrape, scrape, thud. It paused and raised up on its clawed feet, long scrawny neck outstretched, head swiveling back and forth. Bright orange eyes met Sean’s for a moment, and then the turtle settled down, withdrew its head and neck into its shell, and went still.
“Mr. Rogers, I presume?” Sean inquired politely, but he was grinning. Elijah Wood had a sense of humor it appeared, for the turtle did, in fact, bear an uncanny resemblance to Fred Rogers. All it lacked was the sweater. As Sean climbed stiffly into the tub and pulled the shower curtain closed, he was smiling, truly smiling, for what seemed like the first time in months.
Sean stayed in the shower for a long time, feeling a little guilty at using so much hot water, but it seemed plentiful. And it felt wonderful as it pounded on his sore muscles. His scratched face and hands stung but he ignored the discomfort. He could take care of his injuries later. Right now, he needed to scrub away the dried sweat and the dirt and pinesap that had gotten all over him. There was a chunky bar of obviously hand-milled soap in the holder, and it had a familiar fragrance: bayberry. It was a plant native to this area, Sean knew. The gift shops on Long Beach Island were filled with bayberry candles, soaps and similar items.
But it wasn’t of those that Sean was thinking now, but of Elijah, reaching behind his shoulders to help him sit up. There was something strangely intimate and a little unsettling about the idea of sharing the same scent with him. But Sean resolutely put the thought from his mind as he soaped up a washcloth and began to clean himself. It took several shampooings to wash all of the pinesap from his hair, and a scattering of small green pine needles littered the floor of the tub. Elijah must have thought I looked like some sort of bizarre Christmas tree, he thought ruefully.
He felt immeasurably better when he stepped out of the tub at last, and reached for one of those warm, soft towels. He quickly dried himself, pulled on clean boxers and then his spare jeans and an NYU sweatshirt. He sat down on the toilet to put on some socks- he would need to ask Elijah what had happened to his shoes- and noticed that Fred was watching him again from the shelter of his carapace. It was difficult- if not impossible- to read the expression on a turtle’s face, but it seemed approving of his newly clean state. Jesus, if the turtle had noticed…
Sean got up and removed his toiletry kit from his suitcase. While he brushed his teeth, he examined his face in the mirror, and reluctantly decided against shaving. He grew a beard quickly and already had a heavy 5 o’clock shadow. It went against the grain to go around looking scruffy, especially when he didn’t want to give Elijah any reason to be uneasy at having him in his home. Well, there was really nothing he could do about it. There were several scratches across his right cheek, one on his left cheek, a couple on his forehead and a long diagonal slash across his chin. Superficial injuries, fortunately, but he definitely wouldn’t want to drag a razor across them.
Of more concern to Sean were his hands, which were pretty beat up, especially the back of his right hand that he’d felt bleeding last night. But Elijah must have dressed the wounds with some kind of salve while Sean was asleep; he’d noticed a film of blue-green on them. Whatever the stuff was, it seemed pretty effective, for the cuts were barely oozing and there was no sign of inflammation.
Considering the events of the night, he had come through in surprisingly good shape. Thanks to Elijah… and the mysterious white stag.
As Sean rinsed his toothbrush under the tap, his eyes fell on a stack of magazines and books on a low wicker table next to the vanity. The book on top of the pile caught his attention. It was a large paperback with a bright green cover, and the words ‘Pine Barrens’ were easily legible. Curious, he set down his toothbrush and picked up the book: Pine Barrens Legends, Lore and Lies was the title.
Sean hesitated for a moment but then opened the book and flipped to the table of contents. His heart began to race as the words practically leapt off the page at him: The White Stag of Shamong 25. Sean turned with fumbling fingers to page 25, and began to read the author’s account of an incident that had occurred in 1772 on the Quaker Bridge road- the very road that Sean had been driving yesterday. But it had been a sandy trail back then, and it had been a stagecoach, not a silver BMW, traveling along it in a terrible thunderstorm.
As the stage and its frightened passengers approached Quaker Bridge, Sean read, a great white stag loomed in the center of the road… the driver jumped to the ground, rifle in hand. As he did so, the white stag vanished as suddenly as it had appeared!... To the astonishment of all, they discovered that the bridge across the river had been washed away by the storm. Had it not been for the great stag, the coach and all aboard would have plunged into the swollen stream!
Holy shit. Sean closed the book with hands that shook a little, and set it carefully back on top of the pile. While he’d been in the shower, his logical businessman’s mind had begun to reason that the events of last night had not really occurred the way he remembered them. He’d gotten lost, yes, and panicked, but the unearthly scream had not belonged to the legendary Jersey Devil, as he’d thought, but to an owl or some other harmless, if noisy, wild creature. And the white stag had simply been a fantasy, a hallucination induced by his desperate need to find his way out of the woods.
But that book was proof positive that he had not been hallucinating, for he had never heard of the White Stag of Shamong until this moment, and surely it would be pushing coincidence to the point of absurdity to believe that he could have fantasized the very creature that appeared in local legends.
Even more than printed words on a page, however, Sean’s senses told him the encounter in the forest clearing had been real. Touch and smell and sight and hearing- they knew. If he closed his eyes, Sean could recall vividly each detail of the white stag: the softness of its velvety fur warming his cold cheek as he rested it against the stag’s neck; the ebon gleam of its antlers in the starlight as it tossed its majestic head; the white clouds of steam billowing from its distended nostrils; the almost-human expression in its great dark eyes as they met his own…
As Sean stowed his toiletry bag back in his suitcase and zipped it shut, a thought hit him: I will never see the white stag again. Surprisingly, he felt a deep sense of loss at the realization. Despite the terror the night had brought, it had also brought magic, the kind of magic that almost no one believed existed anymore. He wondered sadly if one day the memory of his encounter with the white stag would fade, and it would seem remote, as if it had happened to someone else.
He caught Fred watching him again. Maybe it was fanciful of him, but it almost seemed to Sean as if the turtle was looking at him with pity.