Sean rose from the table and began gathering up the dirty dishes.
“You don’t have to do that, Sean,” Elijah protested, leaning across the table and holding out his hands. “You’re my guest. I’ll take care of the cleaning up.”
“You’ve done enough for me already,” Sean replied firmly, picking up the plates and bowls he’d stacked in a pile. “It’s the least I can do.”
Elijah subsided, and studied Sean as he moved toward the sink. “How are you feeling?”
“A little stiff, but that’s all,” Sean assured him, carefully setting the dishes down in one half of the double stainless steel sink. “Your herbal tea certainly works wonders, Elijah. It’s a hell of a lot more effective than Advil or Tylenol.” He turned on the hot water tap and reached for a plastic pump bottle filled with green liquid soap.
The now-familiar scents of bayberry, of wood smoke, pinesap and dried grasses seemed to enfold Sean in their embrace as a flannel-covered arm reached around him and turned the faucet off again. There was a light touch of fingers on his back that sparked prickles of awareness on Sean’s skin right through the thick cotton of his sweatshirt. But as quickly as the touch was there, it was withdrawn, and Elijah stepped back.
“It won’t do your hands any good to be washing dishes, Sean,” Elijah scolded.
Sean turned to find Elijah standing with hands on his narrow hips, frowning at him. He supposed this was Elijah attempting to be stern, but the effect on Sean was something else altogether.
“But it’s Palmolive,” Sean spoke lightly, indicating the green soap, although Elijah was probably too young to get the joke, and would wonder what the hell he was talking about.
But apparently Elijah did get it, for a giggle escaped him. He looked a bit self-conscious, as if the infectious sound embarrassed him as much as it delighted Sean. “As a matter of fact, it’s not Palmolive, but a ridiculously overpriced brand from the Whole Foods Market. My sister Hannah teases me for always buying organic, but,” he shrugged, “the balance of nature here in the Pine Barrens is more delicate than most places. I figure anything I can do to help…”
“You have a sister?” Sean was taken by surprise, although his reaction was patently absurd. Obviously Elijah had parents and a family like everyone else, for god’s sake.
Elijah was grinning, amused by Sean’s surprise. “Yeah, I have a sister. She and her family live outside Philly. And I have a brother, too- Zachary. He lives with my mom in Iowa.”
“Your folks like Biblical names, huh?” Sean regretted the comment at once, for Elijah’s face went still, the grin vanishing in a heartbeat.
“Yeah.” Elijah pursed his lips and let out a low whistle. Rocky immediately leapt down from the refrigerator to crouch on Elijah’s shoulder, his tail folded neatly over his back and his tiny paws grasping the collar of the flannel shirt. “This way,” Elijah said, stepping back.
Sean had the distinct impression that the ‘no trespassing’ sign had been raised again.
“We’ll go out through the mudroom,” Elijah said. “I left your sneakers and jacket there last night when I brought you inside. The sneakers are okay, although I had to dump about a pound of sand out of each of them, but your jacket…” Elijah looked apologetic. “I’m afraid it’s pretty much history, Sean.”
“I figured that,” Sean sighed as he followed Elijah toward a side door he hadn’t noticed until then. “Shit. Chris is going to be so pissed off at me…” He stopped, simultaneously angry with himself for bringing her up, and swamped by the familiar feelings of guilt and soul-deep unhappiness that had sent him fleeing from the city, from Chris and their life there.
“Chris?” Elijah glanced curiously at Sean. “Who’s he?”
“She,” Sean corrected automatically. “Christine. She’s my…” Sean groped for the words to describe exactly what Chris was to him. Girlfriend? For a 35-year old man, that sounded ridiculous. Significant other? He’d always hated that expression. Partner? Maybe she was in the business, but in his personal life… He no longer thought of what they shared in private as a partnership: that implied a willingness to work as a team, and those days were now gone- if they’d ever really existed, that is. “We live together,” he settled on finally.
“Oh I see,” Elijah said. “God, I’m sorry, Sean, I didn’t mean to imply that you… That she…” Red blotches blossomed on the pale skin of his neck, and his ears were burning. He was clearly mortified by his mistaken assumption about Chris’s gender and what it implied.
“Elijah, it was a natural mistake,” he assured the young man gently. “‘Chris’ is usually thought of as a man’s name. It’s no big deal. Forget about it, okay?”
Elijah nodded and held open the door for Sean, but he looked subdued, and it felt to Sean as if the sun had gone behind a cloud.
The mudroom was noticeably colder than the rest of the house. The floor was cement, although there was a runner of green indoor-outdoor carpet from the kitchen door to the door outside. The room was as scrupulously clean and organized as the others Sean had seen, and the various bottles and cans of cleaning products, the brooms and mops and pails, the gardening tools and bags of fertilizer and potting soil, were all tidily arranged.
There was a cat flap in the outside door, and Maggie suddenly streaked past and pushed through it. Rocky, chattering excitedly as if not wishing to be left behind, scrambled down from Elijah’s shoulder as if descending a tree, then, tail flicking, scampered after Maggie, and disappeared outside, too.
Sean found his jacket hanging where a row of hooks lined the wall on one side. He took it down and grimaced as he examined it. The butter-soft black leather was scored or torn in at least a dozen places, and covered with streaks of sap. Elijah was right: the jacket was history. Somehow the sight of it, even more than his scratched hands and face, brought home the reality of what had happened last night, and what he had so nearly escaped.
“Jesus, I know the distressed look is all the fashion these days, but this is ridiculous,” he said, holding up the jacket.
Elijah had pulled on a fleece lined canvas barn jacket, and was now sitting on an overturned metal bucket, tugging on thick white socks and tan work boots. “Do you always joke about the serious stuff?” he asked.
“I told you, it’s either that or cower under the table with my arms over my head,” Sean said. “But I suppose I get that from my dad. He always believed that there was nothing so bad you couldn’t get through it if you kept your sense of humor.” He no longer saw the jacket in his hands, but an image of the father he had loved and lost too young. “He kept his sense of humor right up until the very end, Elijah, even when his body was eaten up by cancer.”
“How old were you when he died?” Elijah asked softly.
Sean started to put his right arm in the sleeve of his jacket, but stopped when Elijah said, “You don’t have to wear that, Sean. I have a coat you can borrow.”
Elijah finished tying the lace of his boot and got up. He took a blaze orange down jacket from another of the hooks. “Here, you can wear this,” he said quietly. “It belonged to my dad. He was a bigger guy than me, so it ought to fit you okay, and it’s nice and warm.”
“Thanks.” Sean took the coat, and one glance into Elijah’s eyes told him that here was a sorrow they shared. “How old were you when your dad died?”
“Yeah, it is.”
“Do you mind if I asked what happened to him?”
Elijah stared down at the floor, clearly lost in some memory of the past. “There was… an accident. I can’t really talk about it, Sean. I’m sorry.”
“No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pried.” Way to go, Astin, you prick.
But Elijah set one small hand on Sean’s arm. “It’s not that. It’s just kind of… well, not possible to tell you. I would if I could. You’re too hard on yourself, you know.” He removed his hand and smiled and the shadow that had dimmed his expression finally passed. “Your sneakers are over there in the corner. I’ll see you outside in a few minutes, okay?”
Sean watched Elijah go out the door and head across the yard. He felt stunned. How many times had his dad said those very words to him? You’re too hard on yourself, son. You can’t take the world’s troubles on your shoulders. It was partly knowing what his dad would think of the road his life had taken that had convinced Sean to take the step that in his heart he had longed to for years: to get away. To try and figure out exactly who Sean Astin was and what he really wanted from life. Elijah’s words were like a dim echo from the past, and as he stooped to pick up his running shoes, Sean felt almost as if his dad had given him a message.
Although it was still bitter out, the wind was quiet and the sun, unimpeded by clouds, managed to take the edge off the cold. He’d always loved the fresh salt air of the shore, but the scent of pine would forever now evoke memories of the white stag, and Sean drew a deep breath and for a moment the faint image of ebon antlers and great dark eyes rose before him.
Elijah was at the paddock, leaning against the fence with one foot propped on the lower railing, while the horses Sean had seen from the window ambled over to him. He waved to Sean, and said, “Come and meet Sonny and Cher.”
Up close and personal, the two horses were tall as towers with hooves the size of platters, though they seemed placid enough and their brown eyes looked kindly.
“Sonny and Cher?” Sean raised his eyebrows, and Elijah laughed.
“This one can’t be blamed on me, Sean. Hannah named them; they belong to her. I’m just the guy who feeds and grooms them and mucks out their stalls.” He rolled his eyes, but it was plain from the expectant way Sonny and Cher were nosing at his jacket that they were accustomed to being spoiled. “Sonny arrived first- he’s the chestnut- and when Hannah got her second horse and it was a mare, the Cher was unfortunately inevitable.”
Elijah gently pushed a questing muzzle away and searched in his pocket. “Here Sean,” he said after a moment. “The quickest way to make friends with a horse is through its stomach.” He held out several lumps of somewhat linty sugar.
“You want me to feed them?” Sean asked in dismay, visualizing the size of the teeth inside those large mouths.
“I take it you don’t have much to do with horses,” Elijah commented, amused.
“Afraid not. When I was a kid, I used to think it would be cool to be a mounted police officer, but it never got beyond the fantasy stage.” Still, Sean accepted the sugar, figuring Elijah wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of caring for his hands only to let them be chomped off at the wrists by the horses. Sonny and Cher immediately transferred their attention to Sean, both whickering with enthusiasm and stretching their long necks over the top of the fence.
“Put the sugar on the flat of your palm, Sean, and hold it out,” Elijah directed.
Sean did as instructed. One at a time, he held out his hands cautiously, palm upward, and the horses swept the sugar into their mouths with surprising delicacy and crunched on it contentedly; the tickle of their scratchy whiskers and the velvet softness of their muzzles reminded him of the white stag.
“Do you ride?” Sean asked, reaching up to pat Sonny gingerly on the neck; the chestnut’s thick winter coat was soft and warm, like the stag’s had been, only not, to Sean’s mind, quite as soft nor did it have the gleaming luster of a pearl.
“No, I never really wanted to learn. Riding was always Hannah’s thing. She was really good, too,” Elijah said proudly. “You should see all the ribbons and trophies she won.”
Elijah was scratching Cher at the top of her neck, and the mare’s eyelids were half-closed with pleasure. Her long black forelock nearly covered her deep brown eyes, and Sean decided that a Cher-like effect was definitely going on there.
Maggie suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and jumped on the top railing of the fence. She began walking along it with the precise grace of a tightrope artist, tail raised on high. Rocky was nowhere in sight, but Sean heard a distant chattering sound that he thought was probably the squirrel.
Sean was suddenly reminded of a Disney movie that he’d seen as a child, about an orange and white cat who’d been left for dead but was magically returned to life by a woman the locals called a witch. What was the cat’s name? Thomasina, that was it. There was a little girl, too, and the kid’s father, a bitter and cynical old bastard who’d fallen in love with the witch... Don’t go there, Sean, he told himself.
“Your sister doesn’t ride anymore?” he asked, leaning his elbows on the railing as Sonny moved away. The chestnut went over to lip at the pile of hay on the ground.
“Not as much as she used to,” Elijah replied. “Oh, when Hannah visits, she’ll throw a saddle on one of them and go out on the trails, but she gave up the serious competitions after she met Lawrence in college. They were married a couple of years ago, and they’ve got a son, Jordan. He’s a year old, and cute as a button.” Elijah gave Cher a final pat on the neck and stepped back. “So these two hang out here, mooch sugar and carrots and live the good life. Hannah couldn’t bear to sell either of them.”
“You’re a good brother, to take on that responsibility.”
Elijah shrugged. “She’s my sister, and besides...” He hesitated, and then seemed to think better of what he was going to say. Instead, he asked: “What about you? Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“One younger brother, Mackenzie,” Sean replied, wondering what Elijah had been going to say. “He lives in LA, and he’s an actor. Mack’s been in a few TV commercials, done some voiceover work.” But most of the time he expects me to support him. Sean pushed the ungenerous thought away; it was his own fault, after all, if Mack had grown to expect Sean would send him money whenever he asked.
A harsh braying sound interrupted their conversation. It was the gray donkey, wandering over for his share of attention.
"This is Paco," said Elijah, his voice softening so noticeably that Sean was surprised, for the donkey, unlike the horses, had anything but a kindly look about him. He butted his bony head roughly into Elijah's middle through the fence, but instead of backing away, Elijah bent to duck between the bottom two rails of the paddock, and slipped inside. He put his arms around the donkey's scrawny neck and hugged him.
It struck Sean how physical Elijah was, how unafraid to show his emotions, how he hugged and touched as naturally as breathing. That sort of effortless affection had never existed in Sean's family and he envied it. But even more, he wished that he could be the one on the receiving end of that loving hug.
The very thought caused a spark of flame to kindle in the pit of his stomach and even lower, but he fought against it. Elijah couldn’t possibly welcome that sort of attention from Sean, a near stranger. And yet at the same time, Sean felt a sense of relief at his body’s response. It had been so long since he’d felt anything even remotely like desire, and he’d sometimes wondered if he was even capable of it any more. He and Chris hadn’t had sex in weeks, and their lovemaking had never been more than lukewarm at the best of times. He’d come to regard that as yet another of his many failings, but he knew with unshakeable certainty that there would be nothing lukewarm about loving someone like Elijah…
Don’t go there, he warned himself yet again.
“What is Paco’s story?” he asked. “He seems kind of, um, cranky, for lack of a better word.” Nothing could have appeared less like the magnificent white stag than this sway-backed creature with his comical ears and protruding lower lip, but Elijah clearly looked at him through different eyes.
“With good reason, Sean,” Elijah said as he dug a few more sugar cubes out of his pockets for Paco. “He and Dolly- that’s the sheep- came from a farm in Pennsylvania. The owners kept a small petting zoo there, but when they went bankrupt some years ago, they abandoned the animals to starve- not that Paco and Dolly had much of a life before then anyway. Hannah heard about it and contacted me and I offered to give them a home. They’ve both come a long way since then, no pun intended, but if anyone but me tries to get this close to Paco, he'll kick and bite at you; Dolly will run and hide. That’s why she hasn’t come over. If you could have seen them when they first arrived here… well, you’d understand why they don’t trust people.” Elijah’s face was somber, his eyes dark with remembered pain.
Sean looked at the little sheep curled up in the sunshine, its sandy white fleece speckled with bits of straw, and wondered on a surge of impotent anger how anyone could have abused her. “Jesus, the world is a fucked up place sometimes,” he said, shaking his head. “But I’ve met people in the city like you, Elijah, people who devote their lives to rescuing abandoned and abused animals. It takes a very special kind of person to take on such a responsibility.”
After feeding Paco one final piece of sugar, Elijah ducked back under the fence again. When he straightened, his cheeks were flushed, from cold or possibly embarrassment, and his eyes seemed to have absorbed the very blue from the sky. Sean felt dizzied by the sight. “How could anyone refuse to help an animal in need, Sean? And the truth is, I get back as much as I give, and more.”
“I’ve never had a pet,” Sean said regretfully. “I pestered my folks for a dog or cat when I was growing up, but unfortunately my mom’s allergic. And now Chris says I’m gone too much, and she doesn’t want to be stuck taking care of it when I’m away.” He sighed. “She’s right, of course. I do a lot of traveling for my business.”
Elijah began leading the way toward the barn, Maggie trotting along the fence railing beside him. “I really envy you that, Sean. I’ve never been farther from home than Philadelphia or New York. So where exactly have you traveled?” he asked with genuine interest, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet as he walked.
“Where haven’t I traveled is probably a better question,” Sean laughed. “The Middle East, Africa, South America, Australia, Russia, China, just about every country in Europe…”
“Wow. You must have had some brilliant experiences.”
“It’s nowhere near as glamorous as it sounds, Elijah, trust me. All the hotels start to look alike after a while, and there isn’t usually much time for sightseeing.”
“You sound jaded,” Elijah observed, looking disappointed. “Surely it can’t be that bad to see the world!”
“It’s different when you’re there on business, instead of because you simply want to be. It’s not that I haven’t seen some wonderful sights or met interesting people, it’s just…” Sean raised his hands, “not the same, you know?”
Elijah considered this, frowning a little, and nodded. “I guess I can understand that. But at least tell me the most beautiful place you’ve ever been.”
Where I am right this very minute, Sean was tempted to reply, and with perfect truth. “It’d be impossible to choose only one, Elijah. There’s something beautiful about every one of the places I’ve been.” He smiled. “But maybe one of these days you’ll get a chance to do some traveling, and you can see for yourself.”
A peculiar look passed over Elijah’s face then. Sean couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t sadness or disappointment, exactly, but more like… acceptance? “I don’t know if that’ll ever happen, Sean,” he said quietly. “It’s hard to travel when you have animals to care for and responsibilities that you can’t turn over to simply anyone.”
“You’re awfully young to be certain of that,” Sean pointed out. “Life can be so unexpected. After all, look at what happened to me yesterday. I’d never in a million years have believed it possible- but it was. Don’t assume your path is set in stone.”
“Maybe.” Elijah sounded noncommittal. “But it’ll be some years, at any rate, before I can go very far from home.” They’d reached the barn by then, and Elijah took hold of the handle and slid the rough-hewn wooden door open only wide enough for them to fit through. “I don’t want to let in the cold,” he said as he gestured to Sean to go inside. Maggie jumped down from the fence and darted ahead of him.
Sean was beginning to expect the unexpected from Elijah Wood, but even so, he was startled, for this end of the barn resembled nothing so much as a small animal hospital. There were wire mesh cages along one wall, several larger pens at the far end, a stainless steel examining table, scales, a refrigerator and on the opposite wall a row of cabinets, a sink and a long counter filled with medical supplies. There was a propane heater standing in one corner that was the source of the room’s warmth.
“This is impressive, Elijah,” said Sean as he gazed around him.
“My dad started it,” Elijah said as he flipped on a light switch. He ran a hand through his hair and looked a bit rueful. “But I take after him. I was always bringing home strays from the time I was a kid. It drove my mom nuts sometimes, especially with folks calling or dropping animals off here all the time for us to take care of. Between me and my dad, it was a real menagerie most of the time.”
Sean could picture a young Elijah, all big blue eyes, trailing home with a stray puppy at his heels. It was an image that charmed and warmed him inside.
“How many animals are you caring for right now?” Sean asked as he followed Elijah over to the row of cages.
“Only three, fortunately: a pair of orphaned baby squirrels and an opossum that was hit by a car and has a broken leg.” Elijah stopped in front of one of the cages. Sean came to his side and peered into the straw that lined the bottom. The opossum with its hairless long tail and pink snout was an unlovely creature, but sorry looking, too; its left hind leg was in a splint wrapped round with bright green tape. It roused and blinked sleepily at them when Elijah unhooked the latch of its cage.
“Whew!” Sean exclaimed, catching a whiff of the opossum. “What a smell.”
“Opossums have a very strong odor, Sean.” He gave Sean a mischievous sidelong look. “I told you I’d encountered worse, remember?”
Sean resisted the urge to pinch his nostrils shut. If Elijah could take it, so could he.
Elijah reached into the cage and lifted the opossum out. “He’s been healing well. I can remove his splint today, and release him in a few more days.”
“Aren’t you worried about getting bitten?” Sean asked, amazed that Elijah could handle the wild creature without gloves or any other protective gear. Yet the opossum didn’t struggle or even try to play dead as Elijah carried him over to the table and set him down on a piece of thick white fleece that he’d draped over the top.
“No, I’m not worried. Animals have always trusted me, Sean. It’s a sort of… gift I have.”
“What is this strange power you have over horses?” The silly movie quote slipped out before he could stop it.
He grimaced, but to his astonishment, Elijah said, “Horsepower,” while that infectious giggle escaped him again. “Fred and Ginger in Top Hat, right? Are you a fan of old movies, too, Sean?” he asked eagerly as he began to unwind the green tape with deft and careful fingers.
“Guilty as charged. I really love old movies. My favorite is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. What about you?”
“Harvey,” Elijah said at once.
“I might have guessed. So, do your friends all call you Elwood?”
“One or two have, over the years.” Elijah had reached the end of the tape. He wadded it up into a ball and set it aside. “I don’t have many.” He flushed a little as he removed the splint and set the two pieces next to the tape. “Friends I mean. Not those kinds of friends anyway. The people who live around here, Sean… they’re mostly older, my parents’ age or older, and they’d never be comfortable calling me by a nickname. Not too many people my age stay in the Pines. They leave for the cities, like Hannah did. There’s so much more opportunity for work. The old ways of life here are slowly dying.”
“You’ve stayed.” What about your mom and brother? he wanted to ask, but that was no doubt part of the ‘no trespassing’ zone, and none of his business.
“I could never leave,” Elijah replied quietly. “This is my home, where I belong.”
Sean could hear the absolute conviction behind the simple words. What must it be like, to be certain of your right place in this world? Sean still didn’t know where his right place in the world was; he so often felt adrift, a lost traveler without any true roots.
And yet at the same time, Sean couldn’t help but wonder if Elijah was lonely. He seemed so grounded, so strong and self-sufficient, but it must be difficult to see the friends and acquaintances of your own age moving away, moving on to different lives. Sean knew better than anyone how appearances could be deceiving, how you could look like you had your act together even while your life was crumbling around you.
Elijah had taken the opossum’s injured leg in his hands and was gently manipulating it, his brow furrowed in concentration.
“How's his leg?” Sean asked.
Elijah’s brow smoothed, and he smiled. “Fixed. He’s healed about as well as I could possibly have hoped for. Let’s see how he gets around, though. I’m going to move him to one of the larger pens now so he’ll have more space.”
“Not that I know much about it, but he sure looks sound to me,” Sean said a few minutes later as a seemingly healthy and happy opossum scurried around the pen, exploring his new, more spacious quarters. “You really know your stuff.”
“I can’t do a lot, not like a real vet, but the simple things like splinting and stitching I can usually handle. And now this guy needs some food.” Elijah went to the refrigerator and took out two plastic containers. “Earthworms and rotten fruit.”
Sean made a face. “Ugh.”
Elijah grinned as he filled a bowl with the unappetizing mixture. “You’re not thinking like an opossum, Sean. To him this is a banquet. But don’t watch if you’re squeamish.” He carried the bowl to the pen and set it inside.
But Sean did watch with a sort of morbid fascination as the opossum hurried over and began to chow down on his food. “Well, whatever turns you on, I guess.”
Elijah’s laughing glance met his and for a moment the world seemed to stutter and come to a halt. Then he looked away and moved across the room to what looked like a sort of homemade incubator with a heat lamp at one end. “Here are the babies. Take a look, Sean. They’re really cute.”
“God, they’re so small,” Sean said, staring at the gray-furred babies wrestling playfully together in a nest of white tissues, emitting tiny squeaks. “How old are they?”
“About six weeks old,” Elijah replied. “Their eyes have only been open for a few days. How would you like to help me feed them?”
“If you’re sure I won’t do anything stupid and harm them,” Sean said dubiously.
“I’m sure.” Elijah took a can of Esbilac out of one of the cabinets, opened it and poured some of the liquid into a saucepan. Then he warmed it on a hotplate, adding dry cereal to the formula and stirring until it thickened. “I use a syringe to feed them,” he explained as he handed one to Sean. “It’s safer; keeps them from eating too much and choking. They’re greedy little guys.”
And so it was that a short time later Sean found himself, with some trepidation and a sense of unreality, cradling a tiny baby squirrel in one hand while with the other he fed it the lukewarm formula. It was a messy process, with as much formula getting on the squirrel’s face as in its mouth, but the squirrel was nothing if not an enthusiastic eater, and Sean couldn’t help but grin over at Elijah. “I’ve got to admit he’s pretty darned cute,” he said as he filled the syringe with more of the formula and dribbled a little into the squirrel’s avid mouth, being careful not to give him too much, as Elijah had cautioned.
Elijah grinned back as he fed the other baby. “They’re just starting to eat some solid food, but it’ll be a few more weeks before they’re completely weaned. Rocky was half this size when I found him, if you can believe it.”
“It’s a little hard to believe,” Sean said, and then, as a demanding squeak issued from the hungry squirrel he’d briefly neglected, he added, “Or maybe not. Sounds like I have a future Rocky in the works here.”
“Rocky prefers to think of himself as one of a kind, Sean. I’m not sure he even realizes he’s a squirrel, to be honest.”
“I obviously have a lot to learn about squirrels. I sort of assumed one squirrel was exactly like the next.”
“Oh no,” Elijah said, smiling a little at Sean’s ignorance. “They have very different personalities, the same as people do.” And he went on to regale Sean with a very funny story about Rocky and a stray squirrel that had had the temerity to wander into what he thought of as ‘his’ backyard.
The conversation drifted back to the subject of movies again, and they argued good-naturedly about the best and worst movies they’d ever seen, and the time seemed to fly by until the baby squirrels had finally eaten their fill.
“This must be such rewarding work, Elijah,” Sean said when they had placed the contented babies back in the incubator among a fresh pile of white tissues, after carefully wiping them clean. “You know, I once planned on becoming a doctor- a pediatrician. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do than help sick kids.”
“Why didn’t you?” asked Elijah softly. “I’m sure you’d have made a wonderful doctor, Sean. You have such a gentle way about you.” They were standing close together, looking down at the babies who were burrowing in among the tissues, and Elijah touched his forearm, as he’d done before, only the briefest of touches, but Sean felt it down to his very bones.
“Life,” he answered with a shrug. “My dad getting sick when I was twelve. I suppose it’s kind of ironic, in a way. It was spending so much time in the hospital with him that made me decide to become a doctor. When I saw how hard the doctors and nurses tried to help him and how compassionate and dedicated they were, I really thought I’d discovered my true calling.”
“But what happened?” Elijah was watching him again with that intensely focused gaze that even more than his words invited Sean to confide in him.
Sean fiddled with the zipper pull on his borrowed jacket. A jacket that had once been worn by Elijah’s father. I can tell him. He’ll understand. “My dad’s insurance only covered a portion of his medical bills, Elijah, and he was in and out of the hospital a dozen times. My parents had to use up all their savings to pay what the insurance wouldn’t. Things were really rough for my family financially after he died.”
Maggie came over and started winding her way in and out of Sean’s legs, uttering a plaintive meow. He looked at Elijah. “Does she want me to pick her up?” he asked.
Elijah smiled. “Yes, she does. You know, for someone who’s never had a pet, you read them pretty well.”
Pleased by Elijah’s words, Sean scooped the cat up in his arms, and she rubbed her head against his chest and started purring like a racecar engine revving. I could grow used to this, he thought, resting his cheek against Maggie’s soft fur, as he’d done to the white stag. Funny how his every thought seemed to wend its way inevitably back to the stag…
“Go on with your story, Sean,” Elijah prompted, and reached out to tickle Maggie under the chin. “What happened then?”
“Well, when I was a junior in high school, I wrote a software program,” Sean said on a sigh. “I’ve always had an aptitude for programming and I liked messing around with computers, and I thought I could make a little extra money with my idea; mostly to help out my mom and brother, but also to put towards my college tuition. So I started a little business, literally out of our basement. Only, it turned out to be more than a little business. The software started selling like hotcakes.” He huffed a small laugh. “Next thing I knew, I was the CEO of my own company with a half a dozen employees, and by the time I was twenty I was a multi-millionaire.”
“And you changed your mind about becoming a doctor?”
No, my mind was changed for me- by my mom, by Mack, by Christine. “I realized that it was a pipedream, Elijah,” Sean said. The hopeful teenager he had once been, the one who had envisioned a life spent healing others, seemed like a stranger to him. “I went to business school instead, and got an MBA.”
The baby squirrels were already sound asleep, curled up together in a ball. They reminded Sean of his mother and brother in the months after his dad had died: helpless, clinging to each other, totally dependent on someone else for their survival. I had no other choice. I had to take care of them.
“I don’t mean to sound like an ungrateful bastard,” he said. “I have so much compared to most people, and I try to give back, I really do. I’m on the boards of so many foundations and charitable organizations I’ve almost lost track.”
“Sean…” Elijah began, but Sean hurried on, “But what you do here… this… it’s…” he fumbled for words, something that was unusual for him.
“Only one way of making a difference,” Elijah finished. “It’s your willingness to help others that really counts, Sean, not how you do it.”
“Anyone can pick up a pen and write a check, Elijah.” Sean couldn’t help the bitterness from creeping into his voice. “God, I’m sorry. I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch lately but I shouldn’t be dumping on you.”
“I don’t mind,” Elijah replied. “I told you I’m a good listener. If it helps you to talk...”
"Don't encourage me. I'll only end up boring you to tears," Sean said self-deprecatingly. "Let's change the topic, okay? You haven’t told me how Maggie came to be here. Did you rescue her, too?” Maggie, hearing her name, began to purr with renewed energy.
For a moment Sean thought that Elijah was going to protest, but he obviously decided to respect Sean's wishes, and said, “In a way. Dr. Holm, he’s the doctor for most of the families around here, he found her by the side of the road. She was only a few weeks old, too young to be separated from her mother, and half-dead from cold and hunger.” Elijah reached up to pet Maggie and his fingers brushed against Sean’s, whether on purpose or by accident this time was unclear, but the effect was soothing, the way it had been when Sean woke from his nightmare. “He brought her to me. Of course, he could have saved her himself, but it was right after my dad died, and he thought I could use the distraction. We’ve been through a lot together, Maggie and I.”
The cat twisted agilely and stretched out both front paws. Elijah took her from Sean’s arms. Maggie arranged herself across Elijah’s shoulders like a living stole, her long orange tail draping down across his chest, her great amber eyes looking apologetic. “Well, we should go back to the house, and leave these guys to their sleep.”
No, not yet. Please, not yet. If we go back to the house, I'll have no excuse to stay.
“But I was wondering,” Elijah continued, almost as if he had read Sean’s thoughts, “if you’re still not in a hurry to leave, if you’d like to take a drive around the pinelands. It's still early yet; there's plenty of daylight left. Even in January, the pines are beautiful. Of course, I am pretty prejudiced,” he added with a smile as he reached out to flip off the light switch.
With the door still closed and the lights off, the room was in near total darkness, and Sean could barely make out Elijah’s face to judge the sincerity of his offer. He was afraid to overstay his welcome, though he desperately wanted to say yes. But all he could see was the liquid gleam of Elijah’s extraordinary eyes, and suddenly that elusive memory flickered and vanished once again. It was as if a thin but impenetrable veil had been drawn across the memory and the harder he tried to pierce it, the more opaque the veil grew. What was it that his mind refused to let him see?
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to, Sean,” Elijah hurried on, obviously reading the worst into Sean’s lack of response. “It was just an idea.”
He pulled open the door, and in the bright daylight that streamed inside Sean could see he was wearing the same awkward and embarrassed expression that he’d had earlier, when he’d voiced his mistaken assumption about Chris.
“No, no, I'd love to, Elijah,” Sean reassured him, trying not to sound too pathetically eager and pretty sure he’d failed miserably. But he didn't care.
Sean’s BMW was parked in front of the house next to a somewhat battered-looking blue Toyota pickup truck with oversized wheels. It was a bit of a shock to realize that it had been less than twenty-four hours since he’d locked the Beamer’s doors and gone off with naive hopefulness into the woods in search of help. So much had happened between then and now, it almost felt as if he was looking at his familiar silver car through the eyes of a stranger.
“I’ll bet you’re glad to see your car again, huh?” Elijah said at his side as they scrunched across the gravel driveway.
“Yeah,” Sean replied. “For a while there, I wasn’t sure I ever would.”
“I’m afraid my truck doesn’t ride nearly so well as a BMW, Sean, but we couldn’t take a car like yours where we’re going.”
“The extra large wheels are to drive in the sand?” Sean opened the passenger door of the pickup and climbed inside.
“That’s right. There are roads through the woods, but a lot of them are pretty primitive, and some of the places I want to show you aren’t accessible by road at all.”
“You mean, Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride?” Sean quipped.
Elijah grinned and turned the key in the ignition. “Bette Davis in All About Eve. Although she said ‘bumpy night’, not ‘bumpy ride’, Sean.”
"Purist," Sean teased. "Nobody even remembers the true quote anymore."
"I do!" Elijah protested, pushing in the clutch and putting the truck in reverse.
"Well, you're the only one, then."
"Ha, I bet that's not true."
"I bet it is."
They looked at each other and burst into laughter, and were still laughing as the small blue pickup bounced off down the drive and into the woods.