The Woodjin: Chapter 5 by Lbilover

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The cab of the Toyota was small, and cluttered with Elijah’s possessions that he’d hastily shoved out of the way to make room for Sean to sit: a small Styrofoam cooler, a pair of Minolta binoculars, a well-used plastic travel mug with the Wawa logo, several paperback mysteries by authors Sean didn’t recognize, and a large rectangular black notebook filled with music CDs in plastic sleeves.

Sean would’ve loved to flip through the notebook, because he was curious about the sort of music Elijah liked. It would be one more piece in the puzzle that was Elijah Wood, and putting that puzzle together was becoming more and more important to him. Maybe later, Sean decided, when their impromptu tour of the pines was done. Any excuse to linger, Sean?

One thing that was clear, though, was that Elijah didn’t often carry passengers in his truck. He had instinctively reached to turn on the CD player after he started the engine, and then withdrawn his hand as he remembered he had company.

Sean was afraid to admit to himself how much that knowledge pleased him.

The drive from the house to the road was nearly two miles. As it wound through the woods, Sean stared around him, trying to recognize anything familiar from last night. But the journey on the back of the stag was a hazy memory at best, only the scent and feel of the stag itself remained vivid. He could recall looking up to see the lights from Elijah’s house and the smoke curling from the chimney, but nothing else.

“I’m just going to stop and get the mail,” Elijah said, jarring Sean from his thoughts. They’d reached the end of the bumpy, sandy drive, and he pulled up beside a black metal mailbox mounted on a wooden post. Elijah opened his window, pulled down the front of the mailbox and retrieved a small stack of letters and several magazines. He set them on the dashboard and quickly raised the window again; the truck’s cab hadn’t warmed up yet and the air coming in was frigid. Sean was glad of the warmth of the down jacket Elijah had loaned him, and touched by the gesture. It couldn’t have been easy, letting Sean wear something that had belonged to his father.

Elijah put the truck in gear again and turned left onto a two lane paved road. As he accelerated and shifted into second, the pile of mail slithered off the dashboard and cascaded onto the floor. Sean quickly unfastened his seat belt and bent down to retrieve it.

“Thanks,” Elijah said, glancing down apologetically.

“No problem.” As he gathered the scattered mail into a tidy pile, Sean couldn’t help but notice the titles of the various magazines Elijah received: New Jersey Outdoors, Rolling Stone, NME, The Advocate… Sean felt his cheeks heating and quickly placed the latter at the bottom of the pile. He hoped that if Elijah noticed his red face, he would think it was because Sean had been bending down.

It was useless to pretend that he hadn’t been wondering about Elijah’s sexual orientation, especially in light of his own undeniable attraction to the younger man. Sean wasn’t certain if he was more elated or unnerved by this likely confirmation that Elijah was in fact gay.

It’s none of your business, he repeated to himself as he tucked the mail into the side pocket of the door, but that mantra was growing more and more tired with every minute that passed, especially now that they were sitting in such close proximity, with Elijah’s jeans-clad thigh only inches from his own. Those snug, faded jeans with the intriguing rips in them seemed to beckon his fingers to touch… and the scents uniquely Elijah’s own, that heady mix of bayberry, pinesap, woodsmoke and dried grasses, made him wonder how Elijah’s pale skin would taste beneath his lips…

“I thought we’d drive down the old stagecoach road, Sean, so you can see the Quaker Bridge,” Elijah said, seeming unaware of either Sean’s discovery or his discomfiture, or else doing a fine job of hiding it. “Of course there’s a lot of other history associated with the road, not only the white stag legend.” He rolled his eyes. “There’s a lot of history associated with everything in the pines, and I’ll bore you to tears telling you about it if you let me.”

The Quaker Bridge. Sean refastened his seat belt, anticipation welling up inside him at the thought of seeing the place where the white stag legend had been born. “I’m a bit of a history buff myself, so I can guarantee you won’t bore me to tears,” he said. “I might drive you crazy asking questions, though. I’m ashamed to admit I know very little about this area even though I’ve driven through it on my way to the shore often enough. My parents once took my brother and me to Smithville when we were kids, but I don’t honestly remember much about it except this fantastic candy store in the historic village. It was one of those places that have all the old fashioned candies in big glass jars. Mack and I ate so many licorice pipes we were nearly sick.”

“I know that store, Sean. I’ve been there a bunch of times,” Elijah said, grinning. “Although Hannah and Zach and I always liked those candy dots the best- you know, the ones on the paper strips?”

“That wouldn’t quite peel off, so you ended up eating as much paper as candy,” Sean recalled.

“Yep, those are the ones.” Their eyes met briefly. Elijah’s were slightly narrowed with amusement, the startling blue of them still a shock to Sean’s senses. “Wouldn’t it…” Elijah hesitated, staring straight ahead at the empty road in front of them.

“What?” Sean prompted, curious.

Elijah gave a tiny shrug. “I was just thinking how funny it would be if we’d met there as kids.”

“I’m ten years older than you, Elijah. If we had met, you’d have been too young to remember me.” But Sean smiled a little, imagining how cute Elijah would have been as a baby.

“I bet I would’ve remembered you anyway,” Elijah insisted, and Sean was touched. “When did you and your family start going down the shore?”

“When I was about two years old. My parents rented a house on the bay side of the island for a couple of weeks every summer. It was just a small place in Surf City. That was before my dad got sick, of course. We couldn’t afford it after that. I hadn’t been down there in ages, until a few years ago when Chris and I bought a house in Loveladies.”

Elijah’s eyebrows shot up, telling Sean he was fully aware that only the very wealthy could afford a house on that part of the island. It wasn’t really what I wanted, Sean was tempted to say, but he was determined not to make excuses. He’d gone along with Chris’s wishes, hadn’t he?

“So what made you decide to go back after all that time?” Elijah wanted to know.

“Nostalgia, I suppose. God, those weeks at the shore were the most carefree I can remember in my life, Elijah.” Sean could see himself and Mack, sun-browned and barefoot and so fucking happy. “Mack and I ran wild with a bunch of other kids in the neighborhood. Sometimes my dad would rent a small boat and take us fishing and crabbing in the bay, and even my mom…” He paused. “Anna liked it, too. We were out of her hair most of the day, and she could relax and read or sit on the deck and sunbathe…”

“I can see why you would’ve missed that,” Elijah said softly.

“Chris wanted us to get a place in the Hamptons but that just isn’t my scene.” One of the few times I actually fought her on something and won. “I like the peace and quiet. Nobody really knows us there.” Except when Chris fills the place with ‘guests’... which is most of the time. “What about you? Do you ever go down the shore? It’s not all that far from here.”

“Sure, though not since my mom moved back to Iowa five years ago,” Elijah admitted. “You know, that’s where my mom and dad met. At the Bay Village in Beach Haven.”

“No shit!”

“Yep. Mom was visiting a friend from college and Dad had a summer job as a waiter in one of the restaurants where they went for dinner. That was before-" Elijah stopped and bit his lip. “Here’s the stagecoach road, Sean,” he said, putting on the blinker and slowing at an intersection. “It was an Indian trade route originally, you know, that ran from Camden to the shore,” he added in an almost self-consciously ‘I’m your tour guide’ voice.

No trespassing. But Sean had bit back enough words of his own, hadn’t he? Besides, this was what they were here to see, the heart of the Pinelands, and Sean was being given the privilege of seeing it with someone who knew and loved it. That should be enough, more than enough.

Only it wasn’t really. Who did he think he was kidding? Sean had a million and one questions he wanted to ask Elijah, and not just questions about his family and childhood, but the kinds of questions a guy interested in, well, another guy would ask. Are you involved with anyone right now? was foremost among them.

And if he says no? Aren’t you forgetting that you are involved with someone right now? His conscience prodded him, and Sean knew he had no right to ask Elijah or anyone else that question, not yet.

***

There was a barely legible street sign at the turn that said ‘Quaker Bridge Road’ in small faded letters, and without it, Sean would have been hard pressed to guess that this wasn’t simply the driveway to the small Baptist church a short distance up on the left. But the lane continued on past the church, around a couple of dilapidated clapboard buildings standing in a sea of dead weeds, and then snaked its way into the darkness of the pinewoods and disappeared from view.

Bracing his hand on the gray velour seat as the truck hit a pothole, Sean said, “Jesus, you call this a road?”

“This is pretty much the way it would have been when the stagecoaches used it,” Elijah said, steering around another large pothole half-filled with ice-crusted water. “It’s virtually impassible after a lot of rain or snow, but we won’t have any trouble today. Although,” he added with a grin, “you’d be amazed at the number of cars I’ve discovered set in the sugar sand, usually in the summer.”

“Set in the sugar sand?” He had never heard the term before. “Do you mean stuck?”

“Yeah. There are spots where the sand turns soft and deep, and if you’re not careful, it’s easy to get set. It happens often enough that I keep a tow chain in the back of the truck so I can rescue people who’ve gotten stranded.”

“It sounds as if between you and the white stag, you have things pretty well covered.”

Elijah choked, and then burst out laughing. “I guess you could say that, although I’m not the only one who tows people out of the sugar sand. The tow companies around here make a nice living from rescuing tourists who didn’t do their homework before heading out to drive around the pines.”

The truck hit another water-filled pothole with a splash and a lurch. “Traveling this in a stagecoach must have been pretty brutal,” Sean said. It made his bones ache just to think about it, not to mention his muscles, which were sore enough and feeling every jar and bounce of the truck. He didn’t want to say anything to Elijah, because he knew the younger man would be concerned, but the truth was, Sean hurt; the effects of the herbal tea must be starting to wear off.

“Travel in the pines was rough,” Elijah admitted. “Living here was rough, too. But people came and stayed for different reasons, like the Hessians and Tories who didn’t want to go home after the Revolution.”

“I had no idea.” Sean dredged his memory banks from high school history days. “I thought they all ended up in Canada after the War.”

“Not all of them. Some of them stayed. They knew they could hide in the pines, Sean,” Elijah said in a contemplative voice, “and live quietly and in peace.”

“I envy them.” The words slipped out, surprising Sean as much as they did Elijah, who shot him an inquiring look. “Real peace and quiet are hard to come by, Elijah, especially these days. And this…” He gazed out the window. “It’s like another world. You can almost believe that you’ve traveled back in time.”

The woods had closed in around them; if he put down the window, Sean could touch their outstretched limbs easily. There was nothing else to be seen but the ranks upon ranks of pines and oaks, and the occasional even narrower road that branched off from the stagecoach road in a different direction. That is until Sean noticed a glimmer of silver sparkling among the trees. “Is that water over there on the right?” he asked.

“Yes, it’s one of the cedar swamps,” Elijah replied. “There’s a trail up ahead a little ways that leads to it. I thought we might stop there and hike down to the swamp. It’s not very far.”

About a half mile later, Elijah pulled off to the side of the road, into a spot obviously cleared for this purpose, as the road was too narrow for two vehicles to pass side by side. He put the truck in neutral and set the emergency brake. “Do you feel up to walking? Or would you rather keep driving and stay out of the cold?”

“Actually, it’ll do me good to get out and move around for a while.” Sean extended his legs in front of him and winced as his cramped muscles protested. He pressed a thumb and forefinger into his thigh, working at a spasm, but abruptly stopped what he was doing when he saw Elijah staring. Shit. He’d been caught. Elijah would know he was stiffening up.

“I’m sorry.” Elijah’s cheeks had gone pink and his fingers fiddled nervously with the key in the ignition before turning it and shutting off the engine. “I didn’t realize… You should have said something, Sean. I wouldn’t have dragged you out here.”

“First of all, you didn’t drag me out here, and second of all, it’s worth a little discomfort to see this,” Sean said calmly. “Don’t worry about me, please; I’m fine.”

“If you say so.” But Elijah managed to look both unsettled and guilty at the same time.

“I do.” Sean unfastened his seatbelt and opened the passenger door. He jumped down, gritting his teeth against the ache of his calf muscles as the sandy soil broke away beneath his running shoes the way it had last night in his mad flight through the forest.

The truck door slammed, and moments later, Elijah appeared around the front of the pick-up. He had the binoculars around his neck, and he was tugging a nondescript-looking gray wool cap over his spiky auburn hair. It was one of the least fashionable- okay, downright ugly- items of apparel Sean had ever seen in his life. But it didn’t seem to matter what Elijah wore. He appeared luminous in the dappled light that filtered through the pine trees. God, he’s beautiful.

“Here,” Elijah said, taking a pair of tan leather gloves from his jacket pocket. “Put these on. You need to protect your hands. The path is a deer trail, barely wide enough for us to walk on, and I’d hate for them to get any more scratched up than they already are.”

Sean would’ve argued, not wanting to take Elijah’s gloves from him when it was so cold out, but he figured it would be a losing argument. And besides… the truth was, it felt kind of nice to be fussed over. The gloves were a tight fit, Elijah’s hands being smaller than his own, but they were fleece-lined and very warm.

“Aren’t you worried at all?” Sean couldn’t help asking as he began to follow Elijah down the path into the woods.

“About what?” Elijah turned back to face Sean, tilting his head to one side in that way he had that reminded Sean of a curious bird.

“Leaving the truck. The Devil…” It still felt odd to talk about the Jersey Devil as if he was real, even though Sean knew beyond a doubt that he was totally, completely real. “Well, are you sure he isn’t lurking around here somewhere? That he won’t mess with the truck while we’re gone?”

Funny. Sean hadn’t noticed at first how the shadows cast by the trees looked like long skeletal fingers stretching out to touch him, or how the trees themselves loomed overhead, blocking out the sun… Sean shivered, and it wasn’t from the biting cold.

Elijah had shut his eyes for a few moments as if in consideration of Sean’s question, a faint line appearing on his smooth brow. Then he opened them again, and the shadows were only shadows and the trees only trees without a hint of menace or malice about them. “Not to worry, Sean, he’s… he doesn’t normally get up to mischief in the daylight. Nighttime is when he’s at his most dangerous. Come on.”

The wind had grown steadily stronger during the day, and now whistled among the pine branches, stirring the needles that whispered against each other as if speaking some unknown language. Other than the sibilant sound, it was completely silent; even their footsteps were unheard, muffled by the sand as the continued along the path.

It really was like being in another world, decided Sean. He looked up and high, high above him a single strand of cloud-white scored the flawless blue of the sky: the contrail of a jet flying into Philly or Newark. That remote evidence of the 21st century was the only sign that they weren’t walking in some past time. He returned his eyes to Elijah, and suddenly he seemed to see a different Elijah, one who was dressed in moccasins and a fringed buckskin jacket and pants that were worn and stained, and who carried a musket slung over his shoulder. So real was the vision that Sean actually stopped, blinked, and said somewhat urgently: “Elijah!”

Elijah whirled like a wildcat, balancing on the balls of his feet, alert and watchful. “Sean, what’s wrong?”

And it was the Elijah in the moth-eaten gray cap and the barn jacket and work boots who faced him. “Nothing, I- I just… Elijah, when did your family first settle here in the pines?”

“1710,” Elijah answered, raising his eyebrows at the unexpected question. “My great-great many times over grandfather was named Elijah Wood, too. He came here from England as a young man, traveled around for a few years and finally settled in the pines, on the same land my family still owns. The cabin’s been added onto over the years, but a little of the original structure still remains. He married a Native American, one of the Lenape Indians who used to live in the pines, and they had half a dozen children.” Elijah gazed into the woods, his expression somber and far away.

“There are no Lenape living here anymore?” Sean asked.

“No.” Elijah sighed. “I’m afraid it’s a familiar story, Sean. The European settlers were greedy to use the pines for their own purposes and drove the Lenape out of the places they had always lived. Eventually, the tribal elders appealed to the state, and they were granted three thousand acres for a reservation in 1758; it was called the Brotherton reservation. All this,” Elijah swept his arm in a circle, “was a part of it. They tried to make a go of it, but there were so few of them left, you see, after diseases like small pox nearly wiped them out. In the end, they finally decided to leave,” Elijah said sadly. “That was well over a hundred years ago. I’m not the only Piney of Lenape descent still living in the pines, but there aren’t many of us.”

“It must have been hard for them to leave.” He remembered Elijah’s words: This is my home, where I belong. For all the traveling he’d done, all the countries he’d visited, Sean had never met anyone who belonged in a place as clearly as Elijah belonged in the pines. Standing in the woods with him, listening to the whistle of the wind and smelling the clean tang of pine-scented air, Sean felt it so strongly that once again that vision of a slender young man in buckskin seemed to hover over Elijah, a pale spirit from long-gone days. Maybe it was that great-great ancestor he’d mentioned.

“Oh, it was hard for them to leave, Sean. They loved this land and revered it for centuries, long before the Europeans came.” Elijah buried his hands in the pockets of jacket and looked down, digging the toe of his boot into the sand. “Just as those of us who live here now love and revere it. I know some people find the pines ugly, and say that Pineys are ignorant and backward. There are a lot of misconceptions about us, Sean; I’m sure you’ve run into them.”

“Yeah.” And he felt ashamed, remembering some of the things he’d heard said, the derision with which the word Piney had been spoken. “I really dislike labels, Elijah. I expect you do, too.”

“You have no idea.” It was almost a whisper. When Elijah looked up again, Sean could see profound pain etched on the other man’s face and clouding the depths of his eyes. This wasn’t only about people’s misconceptions of the pinelands culture, he realized. This was personal. Someone had hurt Elijah, had hurt him deeply.

The knowledge caused a surge of anger to well up inside Sean, for the very idea that anyone could deliberately hurt this kind-hearted and decent young man was intolerable to him. More than anything at that moment, Sean wished he had the right to draw Elijah into his arms, simply to comfort him as a friend, nothing more. If only…

Elijah straightened his shoulders and smiled with determination. “I’m sorry,” he said, his eyes searching Sean’s face and reading the anger there. “I didn’t mean to go all serious on you like that. Please… don’t let it upset you.” He reached out and touched Sean’s sleeve lightly, apologetically. “Not everyone thinks that way. You don’t. I could tell right away that you were different.” Then Elijah flushed, as if embarrassed at saying so much, and dropped his hand to his side. “We’d better keep moving, Sean. It’s too cold to stand in one place for long.”

But Sean didn’t feel the cold. All he felt was the warmth of Elijah’s words and his touch.

***

“I wish it wasn’t January,” Elijah said regretfully at Sean’s side. “There’d be much more to show you- the bird population right now is a fraction of what is in summer or during the fall migration.”

They’d walked perhaps a quarter mile along the trail to where it ended at the cedar swamp. There was a bleak sort of beauty about the swamp, Sean thought, with its grassy hillocks and the bleached skeletons of long dead trees sticking up out of water the color of tea- from the tannin that leached into it from the white cedar trees, Elijah informed him.

Another narrow trail skirted the swamp; this one was man-made and marked at regular intervals by large blue dots painted on tree trunks. As Elijah led the way along the trail, Sean asked him question after question, about the Lenape and the reservation and about the industries that once flourished in the pines. It wasn’t only Sean’s inborn curiosity about people and places that fueled his questions, though of course, he was curious. It was the way Elijah’s expressive face lit up with enthusiasm as he answered Sean, the way he touched Sean’s arm and then gestured at something he wanted him to see, the way he smiled into Sean’s eyes, delighted by his interest in something that meant so much to him.

Eventually they halted where there was an especially good view of the scenery. With a loud ‘uh-uh’ and a flap of wings, a bird suddenly took off from one of the hillocks in front of them, and flew into the trees. Elijah stared after it.

“What kind of bird is it?” Sean asked.

“Fish crow.” Elijah shielded his eyes from the sun’s glare with one hand, and pointed. “And see there? That’s a Cooper’s hawk. Here, take a look.” He removed the binoculars from around his neck and handed them to Sean.

Obediently, Sean put them to his eyes and adjusted the focus a bit clumsily with his gloved hands. It took him a few seconds to find the hawk soaring high above them, brown-banded wings outstretched as it rode the wind. “It’s beautiful,” he exclaimed, following the bird’s lazy progress across the sky until it began to fade from view.

“Yes. Beautiful.” There was an odd note in Elijah’s voice that captured Sean’s attention; he lowered the binoculars and glanced at Elijah- and was trapped by vivid blue eyes that hadn’t been watching the hawk at all: they’d been watching him. And as quickly as Elijah averted his gaze, it wasn’t quickly enough. What Sean saw there in that split second of connection caused his pulse to race, and for the first time he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the attraction he felt was not one-sided.

A flush crept up the back of Sean’s neck. It was flattering and flustering and wonderful and confusing to think that someone like Elijah actually found him attractive. Sean had never put much stock in his own looks. He was too short, too stocky, too inclined to put on weight. He’d been told he had nice eyes and a nice smile, but the world he lived in now was filled with people who said whatever they thought you wanted to hear, whatever they thought would score them points with you. He’d long since stopped giving credence to their meaningless flattery.

But Elijah… clearly he hadn’t wanted Sean to know he was watching him. He couldn’t have been faking either look or words. Beautiful. Did Elijah really think that? No one had ever called Sean beautiful, not even Chris in the long gone days when he’d foolishly believed that their compatibility in the workplace meant they’d be compatible as a couple, and that the spark of passion that was lacking between them would grow in time.

Sean felt paralyzed by indecision. Should he say something? Force the issue? But in the back of his mind, a small voice was whispering, You haven’t even known Elijah for 24 hours. Whatever he’s feeling, whatever you’re feeling, it can’t be real. He didn’t want to listen to the warning, but his always lurking self-doubt plagued him; in the end he returned the binoculars to Elijah with only a quiet ‘thank you’. Elijah’s eyes were downcast as he took them back, the long black lashes fanning out on his pink-tinged cheeks, hiding his expression.

They didn’t linger long by the water, for the wind blowing off it cut like a knife. Nor did they speak on the way back to the truck. But as he studied the slim, straight back in front of him, Sean wondered almost desperately what Elijah was thinking and feeling right now.

***

Sean felt an irrational niggle of dread as Elijah put the key in the ignition and turned it. But the engine leapt to life at once, and Elijah smiled and said, “I told you there was nothing to worry about.” He adjusted the blower so that a welcome blast of hot air poured out of the vents and then pulled back onto the road.

They had only traveled another mile or so when Sean saw a truck bumping and bouncing along the road in the opposite direction. As it drew near, the truck’s horn blared a greeting, and Elijah immediately responded in kind.

“A friend of yours?” Sean asked.

“A very old friend,” Elijah replied. “Bill Jenkins. I haven’t seen him for a few weeks, Sean, so I hope you don’t mind if I stop and talk to him. He’d be hurt if I didn’t.”

“Of course I don’t mind,” Sean replied, trying his best to squelch the tiny wave of jealousy that rose up inside him at Elijah’s delight in meeting this ‘old friend’.

Elijah edged the Toyota onto the verge and parked it but left the engine running. He lowered the window as the other vehicle, an ancient Ford pickup so faded that the original color was hard to discern, pulled up just opposite them.

Sean’s jealousy dissolved in an instant when he saw the man behind the wheel. Bill Jenkins was an older man- in his late seventies, Sean judged, although he had the sort of weather beaten face that could have been ten years older or younger. He was wearing a hooded parka in camouflage green and brown, and had a black baseball cap with the red Snap-on tools logo resting on his thick, pure white hair.

Bill had wound down his window, too, and was smiling with shy pleasure at Elijah. “Woodjin,” he said in a slow deep voice, and to Sean’s astonishment he actually tipped the brim of his cap.

“Hello, Bill,” Elijah’s voice was soft and kind. “I’m so glad to see you. I’ve been wondering how you and Katie are managing during this cold spell. I hope her arthritis isn’t acting up too badly.”

Bill shook his head. “Not too bad. Doc Holm has her on a new medicine and it seems to be doing the trick.” He grinned. “Been baking up a storm lately, and after me to invite you for dinner.”

“Cranberry bread?” Elijah asked hopefully, sounding so like a child anticipating a treat that Sean had to smile.

“And huckleberry pie.” Bill looked a little sly and added, “I’ve got a batch of jack brewing that’ll be ready in a day or two for you to try when you come over, if you’re feeling brave enough, that is.”

“I’m not sure I’m that brave, Bill,” Elijah laughed, and it was clear that the two men were sharing a private joke.

Sean listened with interest as they talked, settling on a day for dinner and then exchanging news about friends and family members, most of whom seemed to live outside the pines. Except for Elijah’s sister Hannah and her husband and son, the names meant nothing to Sean, but the dynamic between the men was fascinating. Despite the fact that Bill was the older by several decades, he treated Elijah with striking deference, and he never called him by name, but always referred to him as ‘Woodjin’ as if it was some sort of title. Sean could see now why Elijah had told him that the people in the pines would never feel comfortable calling him by the nickname ‘Elwood’, not if they all treated him with that same quiet respect, almost reverence, as Bill.

If Sean had been curious about Elijah before, his curiosity now skyrocketed. He was so wrapped up in listening to their conversation that when Bill’s gaze slid past Elijah and focused on Sean, he was taken aback. There were suspicion and wariness in his face, and Sean had the distinct impression he was being put on trial, his fitness to be in Elijah’s company being judged. We take care of each other around here, Elijah had said, and obviously it was true, for there was no mistaking the protective air about the old man.

Elijah gave Sean a quick, reassuring glance. “Bill, I’d like to introduce you to a friend, Sean Astin. Sean, this is Bill Jenkins. His family and mine have known each other a very long time.”

“How do you do, Mr. Jenkins?” Sean said, absurdly happy that Elijah had chosen to introduce him as a friend. He rested his right arm on the dashboard and leaned forward slightly so he could see the other man without craning his neck. Elijah sat back to make room for Sean, but even so, Sean’s shoulder was practically touching Elijah’s chest in the narrow space. He was acutely aware of how near they were to each other, how if he turned his head their mouths would be barely a hand’s breadth apart. Don’t think about it, he warned himself, and eased sideways, leaning harder on the dashboard. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Elijah wet his lips with his tongue as if they were suddenly dry. Oh god.

Bill tipped his ball cap again. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said with an old-fashioned formality that seemed strangely suited to their surroundings. Shrewd hazel eyes studied his face. “Well now, Mr. Astin, you look like you’ve had a run in with one of our Old Jersey Bull Pines and he came out the winner.”

Sean had forgotten about the impression he must create, scratched and unshaven. He felt mortified. No wonder Bill was staring at him with suspicion! What must he be thinking of him? Ruefully, Sean said, “I’m afraid so. You’ll have to pardon my appearance. I don’t usually go around looking so disreputable.” He ran a hand over his bristly chin, embarrassed.

But the old man only made a dismissive gesture and said, “It ain’t the first time I’ve seen someone who’s been cut up by the trees. The important thing is that you came out again with nothing worse than those scratches.”

It was on the tip of Sean’s tongue to mention the Jersey Devil and the white stag, but it had been hard enough to tell Elijah about his adventure, so he only said, “I feel very lucky to have got off so lightly, believe me.”

Bill then asked Sean where he came from, and expressed some surprise when Sean said he was from New York City. “You don’t act like one of those city boys we see around here from time to time.” This was apparently meant as a compliment, and so Sean took it as one. His next question was natural, but one Sean found awkward to answer. “Will you be staying with our Woodjin long?”

Sean glanced at Elijah, but he was looking down at his silver ring with the curious engraving, twisting the ring around and around his finger. “Not long,” he temporized. “I was passing through when my car broke down and I became lost in the woods. Elijah was kind enough to give me shelter and put me up for the night.”

Elijah spoke up then. “We’re on our way to the Quaker Bridge, Bill. Sean has an interest in seeing it.” A look passed between the two men, and Sean wondered how much Bill knew about the white stag. Enough to suspect what had really happened last night? Probably. Elijah had said Sean wasn’t the first lost traveler the stag had brought to him. There was no reason to think Bill wouldn’t have heard about those others, or even met them.

“I can’t thank Elijah for taking the time to show me around the pinelands while I’m here. You live in a very special place, Mr. Jenkins, although I expect you don’t need me to tell you that.”

“But it’s a treat to hear it from an outsider all the same,” Bill replied gruffly. “Me and Katie have traveled a bit, Mr. Astin, and I ain’t never seen anywhere I’ve liked better and neither has she. It’s a privilege to live here, and I know our Woodjin agrees with me.”

Elijah was looking down at his ring again, but he nodded at Bill’s words. “It’s true,” he said quietly. “Living here is a privilege.” But Sean sensed a weight of sorrow pressing on Elijah at that moment, and he wondered at it.

Bill seemed to sense it, too. “Well, the daylight’s burning fast, so I won’t keep you. But you be sure and let me and Katie know if there’s anything you’re in need of, Woodjin, anything at all. You know you’ve only to ask.”

“I will. Give my best love to Katie.” Elijah hesitated, glanced at Sean and added quietly, “My blessing on you both.”

“I thank you.” And Bill bowed his head, as if in acceptance of the blessing. Then he said good-bye to Sean very politely and with only a lingering trace of wariness in his voice and eyes, and then with a wave slowly drove away.

As Elijah put the truck in gear again, the questions crowded thick and fast into Sean’s mouth. The first one to come out was probably the least important. “What’s ‘jack’?” he asked.

That brought a return of the lightness to Elijah’s expression, and Sean was glad he’d asked that rather than one of the more serious questions on his mind. “Jack is applejack, a hard cider that packs a one hell of a punch. It’s also called Jersey Lightning. Back in colonial times, it was used by the state to pay the road workers, but mostly it’s made privately in stills hidden in the woods. Bill has own still somewhere around here- he’s never revealed the location to me. But I’m sure that’s where he’s been, checking on the latest batch.”

“You mean he’s a moonshiner? Do people really brew moonshine in this day and age?” Sean was flabbergasted.

Elijah’s eyes danced with amusement. “Oh yes, not many, but there are still a few old-timers like Bill who won’t give it up.”

“But that can’t possibly be legal!”

Amusement spilled over into outright laughter. “Of course not, Sean. It never has been. But the police have always shrugged and looked the other way. There are a lot more important things for them to worry about, and it’s not as if Bill is selling the jack. He only makes enough for himself.”

“And you, I gather. What’s the story there?”

Elijah groaned theatrically. “On my twenty-first birthday, Bill presented me with a bottle of jack as a gift. All it took was one glass and I was giggling like a fool.” He grimaced. “Even worse than usual, I mean. And then I had a second glass and, well, the results weren’t pretty, Sean. I’ve never been so sick in my entire life, and Bill’s never let me live it down. I’ve watched him drink four glasses of that stuff and not turn a hair. Me, I stick to beer now.”

“Sounds like a wise decision.” Sean hesitated, and then added, “You shouldn’t be embarrassed by your giggle, you know. It’s charming.”

“Now you’re just being nice,” Elijah protested, flushing. “No one could possibly find my giggle charming. It’s downright embarrassing, that’s what is.”

“We’ll just have to agree to disagree, Elijah,” Sean said gently, and for the first time, he was the one to reach out. It was only the brush of fingertips over a faded canvas coat sleeve, but from the way his heart was pounding, it might have been the brush of lips on lips.

***

Sean leaned on the parapet of the Quaker Bridge and stared down into the dark water of the Batsto River, eddying slowly beneath scattered patches of ice. Elijah leaned beside him, chin resting on his crossed arms. The bridge was smaller than Sean had expected, and made out of concrete and rusted metal, with nary a sliver of wood in sight. Of course, in his mind’s eye, he’d been picturing the bridge as it would’ve appeared before it had been washed away in the violence of the thunderstorm the night that the white stag had appeared. But present and past became a bewildering jumble here in the pines, at least to Sean.

Now that he was standing at the site of the near-tragedy it was easy enough to imagine the fate of the passengers and driver of the stagecoach if the white stag had not saved them. The river wasn’t wide, but it was deep and the banks were sheer. It would be no easy matter to climb up out of them, especially encumbered by old-fashioned woolen cloaks, long skirts and layers of petticoats weighted down by cold water. Elijah told him the original bridge had been built because of the number of Quakers who had been drowned trying to ford the river on their way to the meetinghouse in Tuckerton. The currents in the water must be fierce.

Sean’s eyes drifted shut, the scene springing to life in his mind: the whinnying of the terrified horses as the driver frantically hauled them to a plunging stop; the screams of the stagecoach occupants flung about the interior, the sounds barely audible over the rush and roar of wind and rain and a river in full spate; and the wondering stare of the coachman from beneath the dripping brim of his hat at the mysterious white stag that had appeared out of nowhere to block the way. Most vivid of all was the image of the stag itself, standing in the middle of the road with its antlered head held proudly high, the ivory-velvet of its coat darkened by the driving rain…

“Sean?” From the sound of Elijah’s voice, it wasn’t the first time he’d said Sean’s name. “Hey, where are you?”

Sean came back to himself with a start. “Sorry.” He huffed a laugh. “I’ve never thought of myself as particularly fanciful, Elijah, but suddenly I could see everything so clearly. My god, if the stagecoach had gone into the river…”

“A lot of lives would have been lost,” Elijah murmured, and then he smiled. “But all’s well that ends well, Sean. Fortunately for them, the stag was there, and in the end they made it safely to the inn, wet and shaken, but alive.”

“The inn?”

“Tompson’s Tavern. It stood right over there on that rise.” With a sideways tilt of his head, Elijah indicated a sandy mound a couple of hundreds away on the far side of the river. “I know it’s hard to believe, but this was once a heavily traveled road and the inn did a booming business.”

“Is there anything left of it?” Sean asked, studying the spot curiously. From where they stood, he could see nothing but sparsely scattered pitch pines and white sand.

Elijah shook his head. “No, nothing’s left. The inn was destroyed by fire and never rebuilt, and eventually the pines reclaimed the land. There was talk at one time about a railroad station being put in here, but nothing ever came of it.” He straightened and stretched, arching his back like a cat with his arms extended over his head. Sean couldn’t help but stare. “We’d better head back now, Sean. Bill was right: daylight’s burning. It’ll be dusk soon, and even I don’t particularly like to drive around here in the dark.”

They began to walk back the way they’d come, their footsteps echoing hollowly on the open metal grid work of the roadbed.

“Elijah.” Sean stopped short in the middle of the bridge, the curiosity that had been burning inside him impossible to repress any longer. “Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“No, of course not,” Elijah answered, but there was a sudden wariness in the way he held himself, a tension in the set of his shoulders as he faced Sean with his hands shoved deep into his coat pockets.

“I couldn’t help but notice how Bill Jenkins addressed you. When you told me you were a woodjin, I guess I didn’t really understand what you meant. I had no idea it was a title, that you’re not a woodjin but the Woodjin.”

“It’s not a title… well, not exactly,” Elijah temporized. His shoulders relaxed. He’d obviously expected Sean to ask him something completely different. “That ancestor of mine I mentioned- the Elijah Wood who settled here in 1710? His son Jordan was the first Wood to be called the Woodjin. He was famous in the pinelands as a tracker and guide. It was said that he could look at a single grain of sand and tell you who had walked on it, and that there was no lost traveler he couldn’t find. In every generation of my family since then there’s been a woodjin and it’s become tradition for him to be called by that name rather than his given one.”

“But why are you the Woodjin and not your older brother?” Sean was puzzled.

Elijah shrugged and kept walking. “It’s not always the oldest child who inherits the gift, Sean. My dad, Warren, was a second son, too. Zach has never felt the… connection to this place that I have. That’s why he went with my mom when she left. He likes it here well enough, but it isn’t in his blood.”

“You mean it’s an innate ability? Something you were born with?”

Elijah smiled faintly. “You can’t learn to be a woodjin, Sean, any more than you can learn to have perfect pitch or perform complex math equations in your head.”

Sean fell silent, considering Elijah’s words as they got back in the truck. There were so many other questions he wanted to ask Elijah. About his mother and her reasons for leaving, about why Elijah had blessed Bill and his wife, about that moment when Elijah had seemed weighted by sorrow, about the unusual ring he wore and the inscription on it… But there was a lingering trace of wariness about his companion, and Sean felt he’d pressed his luck as far as he dared.

They drove across the bridge and shortly came to a crossroads. There was a signpost (that Elijah called a fingerboard) nailed to a tree indicating half a dozen different routes. But Elijah took none of them, choosing instead to turn into one of those unmarked narrow paths barely wide enough for the Toyota to navigate.

“We’ll go home through the woods,” Elijah said cheerfully. “Take the scenic route.”

Sean had always prided himself on having a good sense of direction, but he was disoriented within minutes by the maze of sand tracks that crisscrossed the pines, very much as he’d been last night after following the Devil’s ignis fatuus into the woods. But Elijah never hesitated as he steered first one way then another and the truck with its oversized tires made light work of the heavy going. Elijah did indeed know these woods like the back of his hand.

Twice they came to sandy clearings that reminded Sean vividly of the place where he’d encountered the white stag, and he studied the soft ground through the window as they crossed, hoping against hope to see the imprint of its cloven hooves. But to his disappointment, there was no sign of the stag. He would have done almost anything for one more glimpse of the magnificent animal.

Eventually they emerged from the pine trees, and there directly in front of them was the log cabin. The dormer windows on the second floor were glowing red in the light of the setting sun that was hovering just above the tree line and casting long shadows across the ground. With a start Sean realized that it was now almost exactly 24 hours ago that he’d parked his BMW on the side of the road intending only a brief stop to enjoy the sunset. It simply didn’t seem possible that so much could have happened to him in such a short space of time.

After Elijah cut the engine, Sean sat on, silent. A strange inertia held him spellbound. He knew he should move, get out of the truck, but he wanted only to stay where he was, and put off the inevitable moment of leaving. Elijah didn’t move either; his hands rested lightly on the steering wheel, and he appeared deep in thought.

“Sean.”

“Elijah.”

They spoke simultaneously, looked at each other and laughed.

“You first,” Elijah said, making a small ‘go ahead’ gesture with his fingers.

There was a sudden obstruction in his throat. Sean swallowed hard. “I want to thank you for a truly magical day, Elijah, and also for your kindness to me, especially last night. I’ll never forget either as long as I live.” The words sounded sadly final to his ears.

The sky behind Elijah was shades of orange, red and gold. Against that backdrop, his eyes appeared an even deeper blue than usual and Sean was held captive by their beauty. “No thanks are necessary, Sean,” he replied. “I’ve enjoyed your company. In fact I was hoping…” He stopped, and as he seemed to do whenever he was tense or uncertain, fiddled with the silver ring.

“What? What were you hoping?” It was as if someone had sucked all the air out of the cab. Sean couldn’t breath. Please don’t stop, Elijah. Finish what you were going to say.

“I know it must seem like I’m coming up with excuses to make you stay here longer. And I guess in a way I am. I like you, Sean, and the truth is, I don’t often have visitors- human visitors that is.” He smiled ruefully. “All of which is my lame way of leading up to asking you if you might consider staying for dinner. You’re also welcome to spend the night if you want, so that you don’t have to drive to the shore in the dark.”

I like you, Sean. Four simple words, yet they outshone the most extravagant compliment he had ever received. “You don’t need to come up with excuses to make me stay, Elijah. I’d very much like to join you for dinner. And I confess that driving in the dark after what happened yesterday is not high on my list of things I’m anxious to do right now. But are you really sure it won’t be an imposition?”

“Of course not.” But Elijah didn’t have to answer in words. The happy glow in his eyes was answer enough. Sean’s heart gave a lurch even as he reminded himself that all Elijah had offered was dinner and a bed- alone- for the night.

Strange thing about his heart though. It didn’t seem to want to listen.


~*~
“Why don’t you go ahead inside and get warm, Sean. I have to take care of the animals first. I’m about half an hour behind schedule in giving them their dinner and they know it. You can hear them hollering from here.” Elijah shook his head. “They keep more accurate track of time than an atomic clock.”

From the interior of the barn a cacophony of neighs and brays and baas was rising, and Sean said with half-laughing alarm, “We better get a move on, don’t you think? They sound pretty desperate.”

“Sean, you don’t have to come with me,” Elijah protested. “You must be ready to collapse.”

“Nah, I’m okay.” Truthfully he was pretty tired, but nevertheless Sean set off toward the barn at a brisk walk, without giving Elijah any time to protest again. There was no way in hell he was going to waste one single minute that could be spent in Elijah’s company.

With the efficiency of long practice, Elijah scooped sweet feed and oats from metal bins in the tack room, and quickly fed Sonny, Cher, Paco and Dolly, who were banging on their feed tubs in their stalls and loudly expressing their disapproval of the delay in their dinnertime.

A blissful quiet descended as the animals ate, pushing the grain around with their noses before grabbing up mouthfuls. Only their contented munching could be heard as Sean helped Elijah distribute their evening ration of hay and top off their heated water buckets. Then they closed the stall doors for the night against the cold and went to the other side of the barn, into what Sean privately thought of as the ‘hospital’, so Elijah could check on his patients.

They fed the hungry squirrel babies again and discovered the opossum hanging upside down by his tail from a large tree branch that Elijah had wedged inside the pen. Sean was baffled to discover that the odd-looking creature was sound asleep. Elijah explained that not only was this perfectly normal behavior for an opossum, but it was also a very good sign that he was nearly ready to be released into the wild again.

“Those chores went much faster with your help, Sean,” Elijah said gratefully as they hustled across the frosty grass to the house. It was nearly full dark now, and the stars were glittering brightly overhead and their breaths formed dense white clouds that lingered on the air. “You didn’t have to, but thank you.”

“I’m starting to understand why you find it difficult to get away,” Sean remarked as they entered the mudroom and hung up their coats. “Taking care of all those animals is a time-consuming responsibility.”

Elijah unlaced and kicked off his boots and stripped off his socks. He seemed to prefer to go barefoot as much as possible. Like a hobbit, Sean thought with amusement, recalling one of his favorite books.

“Yeah, it is pretty time-consuming,” agreed Elijah. He yanked off the gray wool cap and tucked it into the pocket of his jacket. “And I’m afraid the concept of ‘vacation’ is not one they’re familiar with.”

His burnished auburn hair was sticking up every which way, as if he’d just rolled out of bed. Without thinking, Sean reached out to smooth the wayward strands, as he’d used to do to Mackenzie. But Elijah’s reaction was startling: he shied away almost violently from Sean’s outstretched hand and stumbled back a few steps. For a long tense awful moment they stared at each other.

“Sean, I’m sorry,” Elijah whispered, eyes enormous in a face that had gone quite pale. “I didn’t mean to… But you- you startled me.”

“Don’t apologize, Elijah. I’m the one who should be sorry. That was a stupid, impulsive thing for me to do.” Inside Sean felt sick. He’d glimpsed honest to god panic in Elijah’s eyes, as if he was afraid… of what? That Sean might hurt him? And if so, why? The possible answers were too terrible to contemplate.

But as if determined to make up for his overreaction and prove he wasn’t afraid, Elijah moved close again, took Sean’s hand between his own and gently squeezed it. “It wasn’t stupid or impulsive, Sean; it was sweet.” Then he released it, and said, “I wish you would forget what happened. Please.

“Okay.” Held captive by the imploring look in those extraordinary eyes and with the touch of those small hands lingering on his skin, Sean would’ve agreed to anything.

***

Maggie was waiting for them on the other side of the kitchen door, meowing a welcome as she wound in and out of Elijah’s legs, tail held high. Rocky had been snoozing on one of the kitchen chairs, but at the sight of Sean he leapt up and in a few agile bounds was across the kitchen and perched atop the refrigerator once more.

At least he wasn’t scolding this time, Sean thought as he bent to pet the calico cat, who was now leaning against his legs. That was progress. If only he hadn’t screwed up so badly with Elijah… But Elijah wanted him to forget that unsettling moment, and if this was the one and only evening they would ever spend together, Sean was not going to ruin it with endless self-recrimination.

“So, what would you like for dinner, Sean?” Elijah asked with determined brightness, going to the refrigerator and opening it to examine the contents. “I have a confession to make first, though. I’m a vegetarian, so whatever we have is going to be meatless, I’m afraid.”

“That’s fine by me. I’m practically a vegetarian myself. Chris and I hardly ever eat meat any more.” Sean straightened, wondering why the shape of Chris’s name on his lips felt so odd. “And really, I’ll be happy with anything you make. I’m not picky.”

“I do a mean vegetable-almond stir-fry,” Elijah said. “With or without tofu.” He glanced at Sean, one eyebrow raised in question.

“Without, please.” Sean made an involuntary face. He still had trouble thinking of tofu as real food.

Elijah laughed with genuine amusement as he opened the crisper drawer and started gathering up vegetables in his hands. “I thought you said you weren’t picky,” he challenged.

“I’m not, but you did give me a choice.”

“True.” He pushed the crisper drawer shut with his foot, and then bumped the refrigerator door closed with his hip while he juggled peppers and onions and zucchini. “Sean,” he added hesitantly, setting the vegetables on the counter, “I meant to ask you this morning if you need to use the phone. In case there’s… anyone who’ll be worrying about you. If you do, please help yourself.”

“It’s kind of you to offer,” Sean replied easily, “but any phone calls can keep until I get to the shore.” Only Sean knew that when he arrived at the beach house, the answering machine would be filled with increasingly annoyed messages from Chris, each of them along the lines of: For god’s sake, Sean, stop being such a baby. This is no time for you to go off in a snit, not with our directors’ meeting coming up next week.

“Well, if you change your mind, feel free, okay?” Rocky had jumped down onto Elijah’s shoulder and his tiny paws were pulling at the hair above Elijah’s right ear. “Ouch.” Elijah craned his neck and looked up at the squirrel. “I’m not another squirrel, remember? You don’t have to groom me. Easy does it, Rocky.” He reached up and very, very gently disentangled the strands from Rocky’s grasp. His eyes were intensely blue and alight with laughter as he turned them to Sean. “I can’t stop from him doing that, no matter what I try.”

The bolt of lust that rocketed through Sean then was like a sucker punch to the gut. His knees went weak. I want him, he thought helplessly, I want him so fucking much. The inevitable response of his body to this realization sent him into an instant panic; he could feel himself starting to get hard. Oh shit.

“I think I might go and get cleaned up a little before we eat,” Sean said, trying to sound casual. “Maybe put some more of that salve on these scratches. Where do you keep it?”

“It’s in the bathroom- in the medicine cabinet.” Elijah frowned, looking concerned. “Do you think you can manage yourself, or would you like me to help you?”

Oh Jesus. He imagined how Elijah’s small fingers would feel, smoothing the ointment on his skin, rasping across the day’s growth of stubble on his chin and cheeks… Big mistake. His jeans were starting to feel uncomfortably tight. “That won’t be necessary. I’m sure I can manage alone.” Sean began edging toward the doorway.

“Well, if you need help, just give a holler.”

“I will.” Sean made good his escape, bolting down the hallway and into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. He went to the vanity and braced his arms on either side of the sink, staring down blindly at the shiny white porcelain while he struggled to bring his rebellious body under control. I’m a fucking adult, he thought desperately, not some horny teenager.

But the growing erection pressing against the fly of his jeans made a mockery of his words. He raised his head and gazed into the mirror, hoping the sight of his scruffy beard and scratched face would be enough to shock his arousal away. But it was the sight of his eyes dark with need and desire that shocked him: for it was like looking into the eyes of a stranger. He’d never understood those guys who let themselves be led around by their dicks. He’d always felt a little superior to them, to be honest. But the truth was, he wasn’t any stronger than anyone else. He simply hadn’t known until today what it was like to want someone so badly it hurt.

Scrape, scrape, thud. Scrape, scrape, thud. Sean turned around and discovered Fred staring at him with a philosophical expression on his craggy face.

“What the hell am I going to do, Fred?” Sean asked the box turtle with some desperation. “Take a cold shower? Jerk off here in the bathroom? I won’t do that, goddamn it.”

Fred blinked one small red eye very slowly.

“That’s no answer,” Sean complained. And it was then that his sense of humor came to his rescue as it had so many times in his life. “I’ve totally lost it,” he said. “I’m asking advice from a fucking box turtle.” He began to laugh helplessly at the absurdity of it, sagging back against the vanity. The tension eased from his body, his erection finally subsided and he had himself under control again.

Beyond relieved, Sean decided that he really could use some cleaning up before returning to the kitchen. He washed his face and hands, and then opened the medicine chest and located the jar of blue-green salve next to some Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. There wasn’t a lot else on the glass shelves besides the usual deodorant, shaving supplies, nail clippers and Band-aids, and though Sean tried not to be nosy, he couldn’t help noticing that there wasn’t so much as a single bottle of aspirin or ibuprofen, no antihistamines or decongestants, much less any kind of prescription medication. Elijah must be very healthy, Sean thought. Or maybe he relied on natural products like that herbal tea. No condoms or lubricant either. The insidious thought slipped into his mind. But then Sean wasn’t really sure where Elijah would keep those items if he had them, and it was none of his business anyway.

Disgusted with himself, he unscrewed the lid of the glass jar and anointed his various cuts, most of which didn’t even really need it, and then returned the salve to the cabinet.

Fred meanwhile had retreated into his shell, leaving only the very tip of his hooked nose visible. But Sean thanked him for his advice anyway before leaving the bathroom. He figured it couldn’t hurt.

Elijah had been busy in Sean’s absence. Maggie was eating her dinner; her rasping purrs of enjoyment filled the room. Rocky, back atop the fridge, was too engrossed in stuffing seeds and nuts into his already bulging cheeks even to notice Sean’s return. Elijah meanwhile was at the stove as he had been that morning, but now there was a cutting board covered in vegetables- red and green peppers cut into strips, chopped carrots and zucchini, snow peas and mushrooms- at his elbow, and bottles of soy sauce and peanut oil and jars of spices and nuts beside them. From the smell of it, he was softening onions in the well-seasoned wok that he was gently shaking back and forth over the burner. There was a covered pot on the adjacent burner with steam gently escaping from under the glass lid. Rice to go with the stir-fry, probably.

“There’s beer in the fridge, Sean,” Elijah said, hefting his own bottle. “Help yourself.”

“Thanks.” Sean opened the refrigerator and located the beer on the second shelf. “Shiner Bock?” he asked, studying the label. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s fantastic,” Elijah enthused. “My sister got it for me. Hannah knows how much I like beer and she’s always bringing me some unusual brand to try when she comes to visit.” He tilted his head and regarded Sean. “Everything okay? You seemed a little anxious earlier. That scratch on your hand isn’t worse, is it?” His worried eyes settled on Sean’s right hand that was curved around the sweating brown beer bottle.

Anxious. Well, that was one way to put it. “It’s not worse, Elijah. I have a tendency to be a bit overcautious, that’s all. Drives my family crazy.” Sean untwisted the bottle cap and took a long swig of the cold beer. “Mmm, that is good.” He licked foam from his lips, caught Elijah staring at his mouth and quickly asked, “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“You can get out plates and silverware.” Elijah scooped up a handful of the vegetables and dropped them in the wok, which sizzled and spat. “I thought we’d eat in the family room, Sean. That’s where I usually eat my dinner. It still feels sort of weird to eat at the kitchen table without the rest of my family, you know?”

With Elijah directing him to the correct cupboards and drawers, Sean found the plates and silverware and napkins. Then he sat down at the table and sipped at his beer, enjoying the chance to relax and watch Elijah as he moved around the kitchen, even his simplest movement fluid and graceful. Perhaps both were consciously trying to avoid any repetition of the awkward moment in the mudroom, for they confined the conversation to their favorite beers and foods, and Sean told Elijah about some of the more exotic dishes he’d encountered while traveling in distant parts of the world. Maggie, her food bowl empty, trotted over and jumped up onto Sean’s lap. He thought again, as he had earlier in the day, I could grow used to this.

It seemed no time at all before the food was ready. Sean had to smile as he trailed out of the kitchen after Elijah, carrying his plate in one hand and a freshly opened Shiner Bock in the other. With Rocky perched on Elijah’s shoulder and Maggie and Sean following after him, they rather resembled an illustration for the tale of the Pied Piper.

The family room was clearly the heart of the house, and Sean felt its warmth and welcome from the moment he stepped through the door. Extending half the length of the house, it had two large windows that overlooked the front porch and drive. The floor was made of wide-planked golden pine, and was largely covered by a carpet woven in abstract patterns of rust, black and cream. Navajo, Sean guessed, and so beautifully made that he knew Chris would’ve coveted it at once.

At the far end of the room, there was a stone fireplace of similar design to that in Sean’s bedroom, but it had a woodstove attached to it. In the center a pair of comfortable-looking red leather couches with throw pillows in shades that matched the rug were angled to face an entertainment center with TV, DVD player and an impressively large stereo system. A plain wooden desk between the windows held an older model Mac computer, printer and various peripherals. The computer geek in Sean delighted to discover that Elijah was another Mac fan, but another part of him found the idea of a woodjin surfing the Internet or playing computer games hard to digest. Past and present, old and new… Elijah was a fascinating conundrum.

But what held Sean’s attention longest were the shelves of books that covered the walls on either side of the fireplace, and he positively itched to go and explore their contents.

“Have a seat, Sean,” Elijah invited, setting his food down on the end of the computer desk. “I’m going to feed the woodstove. I should’ve put more wood in it before we left. I try to keep it going 24/7 when it’s this cold outside.” He looked mock stern. “And don’t wait on me to eat, okay?”

Sean obediently sat down on one of the sofas and dug into his food while Elijah fussed with the woodstove, adding a few logs from a basket on the hearth and checking the water level in the steamer that was, to Sean’s amusement, shaped like a dragon so that steam would pour out its snout when the water was hot. When a bright blaze was flickering behind the glass door, Elijah dusted his hands on his jeans, and crossed to the entertainment center. “What about some music?”

“Sure,” Sean replied around a mouthful of stir-fry.

“I’m kind of a music geek, so I have pretty much everything. What do you like?” Elijah picked up a black notebook like the one Sean had seen in the truck, and began flipping through the plastic CD sleeves.

There were at least five more of the notebooks on a shelf, and Sean realized that Elijah must own literally thousands of CDs. Music geek, indeed. “My tastes are pretty eclectic,” Sean hedged, embarrassed to confess to his own lack of musical knowledge. “To be honest, even though I have an iPod, I don’t have much time to listen to music. So whatever you pick is fine with me.”

“God, I couldn’t survive without music, especially living alone,” Elijah said. “When I was eight, my mom gave me a cassette of The Monkees’ Greatest Hits. I swear I wore it out, playing it over and over. I’ve been kind of obsessed with music ever since.” He stopped flipping, pulled out a CD then closed the notebook and turned on the stereo. “Do you like The Stone Roses?”

“Um,” Sean began, clueless.

Elijah looked shocked. “Sean, you don’t know The Stone Roses? They’re totally brilliant.” He popped the CD in the tray and pushed the close button. The music started out softly, and then Sean jumped, nearly upsetting his plate, as it blasted from the speakers. “Sorry,” Elijah apologized, quickly turning the volume down. “I tend to keep the sound cranked so I can hear it no matter what room I’m in.”

He grabbed his plate and beer and joined Sean, but instead of sitting on the sofa, he sank onto the carpet to sit cross-legged with boneless elegance. Maggie and Rocky had settled in front of the woodstove, clearly craving its warmth. The small gray squirrel was curled between Maggie’s front legs, his bushy tail covering his head.

“This stir-fry is really excellent, Elijah,” Sean said, and he wasn’t just being polite, for the vegetables were crisp and the sauce spicy (but not too) and the brown rice perfectly cooked. “You know, I’m feeling a bit intimidated here. Is there anything you can’t do?”

Elijah looked extremely embarrassed by the compliment. “Oh, lots of things.”

“Name one.”

“You wouldn’t want to hear me sing,” Elijah said, grinning, “or play a musical instrument for that matter. I love music, but I have no musical talent at all. Ask my sister sometime about my guitar playing.”

“I’ll bet you’re a lot better than you think,” Sean said.

“I’d demonstrate, but I wouldn’t want to shatter your illusions or set Maggie to howling,” Elijah joked. “What about you, Sean? What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?”

“When I have any spare time, which isn’t very often, I like to read. I’ll read pretty much anything- cereal boxes included- but mainly history, especially autobiographies. It’s enlightening to experience the world through someone else’s vision.”

“You’ll have to take a look through the books later.” Elijah pointed his fork toward the crammed shelves. “My dad was a huge collector of folklore and Pine Barrens history. My great-grandfather started the collection and I’ve added a few things, but most of them are Dad’s. He especially loved folk legends. Not just of the Pine Barrens, but cultures all over the world. He was fascinated by how legends traveled from place to place, how they grew and changed.” Elijah smiled reminiscently. “Dad used to give lectures on the Pine Barrens at schools and libraries and senior centers. How he loved to talk.”

“I’d love to have heard him.”

“He was a great woodjin, Sean, and taught me almost everything I know about the pines. We spent hours hiking and tracking and camping in the woods.”

“And… what about your mom?” Sean asked tentatively, not sure if he ought to bring up the topic.

Elijah pushed the food around his plate as if his appetite had suddenly vanished. “She loved my dad, Sean, but she never loved the pines. I think she resented their hold over Dad, to be honest. After he died, she wanted to sell the house, wanted all of us to go away, but Hannah didn’t want to leave, and I…” He shook his head. “Anyway, she waited until I was 21 and then she signed the house and property over to me, and she and Zach moved to Cedar Rapids.”

“Have you seen her since?” Sean recalled what Elijah had said about never having traveled farther than New York or Philadelphia.

“Oh yeah. Mom comes to visit every summer for a few weeks. And we talk on the phone all the time. Things were rough between us for a while, but she loves me, and I know she was only trying to protect me.”

“Protect you from what? This seems like a pretty ideal place to grow up.”

“It’s complicated. You know how things are with families.” It was a non-answer, but Sean accepted it and didn’t press Elijah. He’d taken down the ‘no trespassing’ sign for far longer than Sean had expected.

“Turn about is fair play, Sean,” Elijah said then. “What about your dad and mom?” He set aside his half-empty plate and hugged his knees to his chest, watching Sean with that sideways tilt of his head that was so characteristic and charming.

“My dad owned a plumbing supply business in Queens. He started it from the ground up and worked his ass off so he could give me and Mack all the advantages he never had growing up,” Sean said. “He was largely self-educated and never graduated high school, but he believed in the value of a good education and always encouraged us to read. I inherited my love of reading from him, like I inherited my sense of humor. As for my mom…” Sean hesitated. It was still difficult sometimes to talk about her. “She has bipolar disorder, Elijah. It went undiagnosed for a long time, so she wasn’t able to be there for us a lot when Mack and I were kids, and she could never really hold down a job. My dad had to be mom and dad to both of us sometimes. When my dad got sick, Anna could barely cope with that and us and the money situation. But eventually she was diagnosed and I was able to help her get the treatment she needed.”

“I bet your dad would be really proud of you,” Elijah commented. “Helping your mom and brother, running a successful business…”

“I’ve asked myself that question more times than you can imagine, Elijah.”

“What do you mean?” Elijah leaned back against the sofa, studying Sean curiously.

Sean turned the beer bottle in his hands. The label was starting to peel off a little at one corner from the moisture, he noticed abstractedly. In the background, The Stone Roses played softly. It was good music, he thought, just as Elijah had said. He’d have to write down the title of the album before he left. He could buy it from the iTunes store. Hell, he could buy every fucking album in the iTunes store if he wanted.

“I wonder if he would be proud of me. Oh, he’d have been thrilled if I’d become a doctor the way I’d once hoped. But the CEO of a company that sells software for Internet advertising?” Sean huffed a laugh when he saw the surprised look on Elijah’s face. “Yeah. That’s my great programming invention, Elijah, and I make a hell of a lot of money from it. And sometimes I think that, far from being proud, my dad would believe I’d sold my soul to the devil.”

“Don’t say that!” Elijah spoke sharply. He rose to his knees, and shuffled across the carpet until he was directly in front of Sean. He sank back onto his heels, and rested his hands palm upward on his thighs in a gesture almost of supplication. “Anyone who has been in your company for even five minutes can see what a decent and honorable man you are, Sean. Of course your dad would be proud of you.”

Tears crowded thick and fast in Sean’s throat; it was a struggle to force them back. Elijah spoke with such absolute conviction, and he looked almost fierce, as if he was prepared to do battle on Sean’s behalf… as the white stag had done. “If only to hear you say that, Elijah, every single thing that has happened to me in the past 24 hours has been worth it.”

“Even being chased through the woods by the Jersey Devil?” Elijah asked, smiling, but his eyes were suspiciously bright.

“Even that,” he agreed, smiling back, although it was a wobbly smile. “I don’t want to startle you again, Elijah, so consider this fair warning: I’m going to give you a hug, okay?”

He leaned forward, the red leather creaking softly under his shifting weight, and held out his arms. Elijah rose to his knees and went willingly into Sean’s embrace, hugging him hard around the waist. Elijah’s body was lean but firmly muscled, and as Sean held him close, the intoxicating scents of bayberry and pine sap, of woodsmoke and dried grasses filled his senses and made him almost dizzy with longing to turn this embrace into something more than a hug of gratitude for the light Elijah had shed in the darkness of Sean’s soul. But Elijah had called him a decent and honorable man. Sean held him for a heartbeat longer while he tried to imprint the memory of this moment in his mind forever. Then he whispered, “Thank you,” and let Elijah go.

Elijah sat back on his heels again, and Sean wondered if it was his imagination or if a trace of disappointment lingered in those brilliant blue eyes, as if he hadn’t wanted their embrace to end either.

But if that was the case, Elijah, like Sean, wasn’t going to say anything about it. “If you’re finished eating, Sean,” was what he did say, “I thought maybe we could watch a double feature of our favorite movies: Harvey and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I own them both.”

“That would be wonderful, Elijah,” Sean said, and was rewarded by the pleased smile that lit the young man’s face. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen either of them.”

“Great.” Elijah scrambled to his feet and held out his hand. “Here, give me your empty plate. I’m going to go get us some popcorn and ice cream.”

“Popcorn and ice cream?” Eyebrows lifted, Sean handed over his plate.

“Of course. You can’t watch a double feature without popcorn and ice cream,” Elijah stated firmly as he bent to pick up his own plate. “Be back in a few.”

Sean decided to take advantage of Elijah’s absence to explore the bookshelves. He was more intrigued than ever after what Elijah had told him about the collection.

Maggie and Rocky were still curled up together by the woodstove that was giving off steady warmth. Small clouds of steam billowed from the red lacquered nose of the dragon steamer. Sean stood for a moment looking down at the cat and squirrel, marveling at their trusting companionship. As if sensing Sean’s regard, Maggie opened one amber eye and regarded Sean curiously. “Do you have any idea how lucky you are?” he asked, and then laughed softly. “Of course you do, Maggie. Go back to sleep.” She closed her eye and went back to sleep, and Sean walked over to the shelves.

He scanned the titles with interest. In addition to a great many books on the Pine Barrens and its history, there was an extensive selection of books about world folklore and legends, as Elijah had said. But there were also books on botany and medicinal herbs, on natural history and ornithology, and even on veterinary medicine. There was material here for many hours of fascinating reading, Sean thought, and felt a pang at the knowledge that he would never have the chance.

At random, he pulled a large leather bound volume from the shelf. The binding was plain brown calf with no printing on it. Sean opened the book to the first page and stared in wonder at an amazingly lifelike watercolor and ink drawing of a flower. This was an artist’s sketchbook, he realized. Sean carefully turned the pages, and each page held yet another exquisite painting. Whoever this unknown artist was, he or she had uncommon talent. At the bottom of each drawing, the name of the plant was written in black ink in an old-fashioned script along with the initials ‘HBW’. The names of the flowers were strange to Sean, even when he thought he recognized the plant being depicted. Sparkle one was called, never-wet was the name of another. He wondered if HBW had named them.

“I’m back.” Startled, Sean turned to see Elijah juggling three bowls in his arms and smiling at him. “I see you’ve discovered one of my great-grandmother’s sketchbooks,” he said, observing the book in Sean’s hands.

“Your great-grandmother painted these?”

“Uh huh,” Elijah replied, setting the bowls down. “Her name was Hannah Byron Wood. She was entirely self-taught, never took a single art lesson, but she had a real eye for nature. She died before I was born, but my dad said she used to be gone for days at a time, alone in the woods with her sketchbook. Her goal was to paint every plant and animal that lives in the pines. It was almost as if she knew that many of the things she painted would someday become extinct or nearly so.”

“She was an amazing artist, Elijah. Her use of color is extraordinary. These flowers feel so real, I can almost smell them.”

Elijah went to Sean’s side and peered over his shoulder at the sketchbook.

Whippoorwill shoe,” Sean read aloud, admiring a delicately colored drawing of a pink flower with pale green leaves on a long slender stalk. “I always thought this was called a lady’s slipper.”

“Not in the pines. We have our own names for many of the indigenous plants. Better ones if you ask me,” Elijah added with a touch of pride. “Now come on, the first half of our double feature is about to start and the ice cream’s starting to melt.”

Regretfully, for he could have lingered over the pages for hours, Sean closed the sketchbook, and slid it back into its place on the shelf with the greatest care

No few hours ever flew by so fast. Popcorn and ice cream went surprisingly well together, Sean discovered, especially when the ice cream contained peanut butter Tastykakes, a food that Sean had seen for sale in gas station convenience stores or the end of aisles in the supermarket, but never once tasted until now. Elijah was nearly as shocked to discover this sad lack in Sean’s culinary experience, as he was to discover that Sean had never heard of The Stone Roses.

“You mean to tell me you’ve never eaten a Butterscotch Krimpet?” Elijah paused with a spoonful of ice cream halfway to his lips. “Oh Sean, you haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a Butterscotch Krimpet. They’re made in Philly, you know,” he said, as if that was the clincher.

All too soon, both ice cream and popcorn had been consumed amid much friendly arguing over which movie was better, and the credits for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were rolling across the TV screen. Sean was half tempted to ask Elijah if they could watch another movie, but a glance at his wristwatch showed that it was already after 10 p.m. This magical day was coming to an end at last; there was no way to stop the clock, and his body was starting to clamor for sleep. Despite himself, Sean yawned hugely behind his hand.

Elijah tilted his head back. He was seated on the carpet, as he claimed to prefer, leaning against the couch next to Sean’s legs. “Sounds like you’re ready for bed, Sean.”

It was useless to deny it. “I am kind of beat.” Another yawn forced its way out, but he smiled around it. “But I’ve rarely enjoyed an evening more, Elijah.”

“Neither have I.” Their eyes locked and held.

From this angle, Sean could see the outline of Elijah’s full bottom lip and the curving ends of his long black lashes. Tired as he was, or perhaps because he was too tired to keep up his guard, Sean imagined what it would be like to slide off the couch and join Elijah on the floor, to push him down on his back on the carpet and taste that sensuous mouth, to undress him slowly and explore every inch of his body with hands and mouth. But Elijah believed him to be a decent and honorable man, and he knew he had no right to involve anyone else in the mess his own life had become.

So instead he stood up and said, “Well, I guess I’d better get to bed before I fall asleep on your couch.” Hold out your hand, Elijah. Ask me to stay.

But Elijah only said quietly, “Yes, you’d better. It’s been a long day.”

***

The white stag stood proudly in the middle of the starlit clearing, his great dark eyes holding Sean’s captive. Sean, his heart in his throat, moved slowly toward him, hand outstretched. Then suddenly, with a toss of his antlered head, the stag wheeled and began trotting away. Sean hurried after him, forcing his way into the trees, pushing at stiff pointed branches that snagged his clothes and tore at his hands. Gritting his teeth, he struggled on but the elusive figure drew further and further away.

“Please wait,” he cried out in despair, but it was too late. The stag had vanished.


Sean woke up with tears on his cheeks. It was only a dream, he told himself, but the sense of loss felt so real.

The first cold pale light of dawn was showing through the windows. It was early, but Sean knew he wouldn’t fall back asleep, even though his eyes felt gritty and he didn’t feel at all rested. I don’t want to leave, Sean thought as he stared up at the ceiling. The words from a Robert Frost poem suddenly came into his mind:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.


The sound of a door closing roused Sean from his bitter thoughts. Elijah was up then. Sean threw back the covers and got out of bed. He went to the window overlooking the yard, somehow certain of what he’d see. And there was Elijah in his faded barn coat and ugly gray hat heading toward the barn to take care of the animals.

Alone.

Magical worlds aren’t for people like you, Sean. You had one glimpse of magic. Be grateful. That’s more than most people ever get.

Sean rested his forehead against the icy chill of the windowpane and watched as Elijah slid open the barn door and disappeared inside, pulling it shut behind him. Please wait, he wanted to cry as he had in his dream, but like the white stag, Elijah had vanished from sight, and Sean couldn’t follow him.

***

Fred wasn’t in the bathroom. Sean felt absurdly disappointed. There was something about the turtle’s phlegmatic presence that he would have welcomed at that moment. Sean decided against showering- the scent of bayberry more than he could bear- but he did shave, even though it probably would have been wiser to wait another day or two. But it seemed a matter of pride, foolish or not, that Elijah should not remember him with two days’ growth of scruffy-looking beard covering his face.

When he was finished, Sean returned to his bedroom and packed his few belongings. He made the bed neatly, and as he was smoothing out the beautiful wedding ring quilt he realized with sudden and unquestioning intuition that it had been sewn by Elijah’s great-grandmother Hannah. “Thank you,” he whispered, not sure why, and with one final stroke of his palm across the soft fabric, left the room, taking his suitcase with him and leaving it by the front door.

He then made his way to the kitchen where he found Fred, long scrawny neck outstretched, eating a breakfast of shredded lettuce and berries from a small ceramic bowl. There was no sign of either Maggie or Rocky. Sean noticed at once that the kitchen table was set for two, and his heart was sore. It still feels sort of weird to eat at the kitchen table without the rest of my family, you know? Elijah had said last night. I’m so sorry, Elijah, Sean thought. I can’t. If I do, I’ll end up begging you to let me stay.

The flurry of bird wings outside the picture window caught Sean’s attention. Elijah was at one of the bird feeders, filling it with sunflower seeds from a plastic scoop. An involuntary smile curved Sean’s lips. The young man looked like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. There was a cardinal perched on his head, a bright splash of scarlet on gray, a pair of goldfinches in their drab winter clothing on one shoulder, and a tiny black-capped chickadee on the other. Other birds hovered, landing lightly on Elijah’s outstretched arms for a moment or two, or hopped around him on the ground, snatching up seeds that accidentally fell from the scoop. It was a sight Sean would never forget.

As Elijah replaced the top on the now-full feeder, he noticed Sean, and a bright smile lit his face. He waved, dislodging two sparrows and a titmouse from his coat sleeve, and mouthed, “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Sean nodded, unable to speak for the lump in his throat. His face must have been more revealing than he realized, for the bright smile faded from Elijah’s face, and he looked sober as he headed toward the mudroom door.

Within a few minutes, Elijah entered the kitchen with Maggie and Rocky. He had removed his hat and coat, but still wore his tan work boots. He was wearing an oversized sweater in a soft blue that made his eyes more luminous than ever, and he was carrying Sean’s ruined jacket in one hand.

“Good morning,” Sean said, drinking in the sight of Elijah, storing it in his mind and heart.

“Good morning.” Elijah’s voice was subdued. “I’ve got your jacket here,” he said, stating the obvious. “I didn’t want you to forget it, Sean. You never asked, but your wallet is still in the pocket.” He held it out.

“Thanks.” Sean took the jacket, and felt an unreasoning hatred of the butter-soft, expensive leather, wishing, absurdly, that it was a blaze orange down jacket instead. “I would’ve forgotten it, I’m sure.”

“Your car keys are on the dashboard,” Elijah hurried on. “In case you were wondering.”

Maggie was winding stiffly around Elijah’s legs. She let out a plaintive meow, and Elijah glanced down at her and said, “Maggie, stop.” From his spot atop the refrigerator, Rocky was chattering to himself, sounding agitated, and Fred had stopped eating and was regarding Sean dolefully; a piece of dark green lettuce drooped from the corner of his mouth.

“Can I get you anything before you leave? A cup of coffee or tea?” Elijah was determinedly not looking at the table he’d set with the obvious belief that Sean would be staying for breakfast.

Sean felt the worst sort of ingrate. “No, but thank you, Elijah. I can get something to eat on the way to the shore. I have to stop and pick up some groceries anyway.” He gripped the leather jacket hard between his fingers, steeling himself to say, as if he had some urgent business appointment: “In fact, I’d really better get going.”

“Of course,” Elijah agreed quietly at once. “I’ll walk you out to your car.”

They didn’t say a word as they walked through the quiet house with Maggie trotting at Elijah’s heels. Sean picked up his overnight case by the door and followed Elijah outside and down the front steps of the porch. It was bitterly cold and the sky was leaden, but the thought of the heated leather seats of his Beemer did nothing to cheer Sean up. The small blue pickup truck parked beside the sleek silver sedan appeared so much more inviting.

Sean opened the back door of the BMW and as he set his suitcase on the dark gray leather, saw a rectangular cardboard box resting on the other half of the seat. “What’s this?” he asked curiously, glancing over his shoulder at Elijah.

“Just a small present for you, Sean. Something I’d like you to have.” Elijah smiled rather crookedly. “But please don’t open it until you get to your beach house, okay?”

“Okay,” Sean agreed, though he was burning with curiosity. “But you really didn’t have to…”

“I did.” The words were almost fierce.

Sean shut the car door. “Would you, um, say goodbye to Rocky and Fred and everyone else for me?”

Elijah nodded, biting his lip.

“Goodbye, Maggie,” Sean bent to pet the calico cat, and she butted her head against his hand though her amber eyes looked reproachful. Then he straightened and faced Elijah.

“You’ll need directions back to the highway,” Elijah said, and dug a piece of folded notebook paper out of the front pocket of his jeans. “It’s not complicated, but I wrote them down for you, just in case.”

“Thank you,” Sean said, taking the paper, feeling totally inadequate to the moment that was now staring him in the face. What could he say, what could he possibly say? “Elijah…” he began, and words failing him utterly, he held out his arms.

And in a rush, Elijah was pressed against him, his arms wound around Sean’s neck. They held each other wordlessly for a long time, rocking gently back and forth. Sean couldn’t bring himself to let Elijah go. In the end, it was Elijah who dropped his arms and stepped back first with a whispered, “Goodbye”. Sean let him go reluctantly, feeling almost bereft. “Goodbye, Elijah.” It was almost more than he could manage. Anything more would have choked him.

They walked in silence around the front of the car to the driver’s door, and Sean opened it. But as he was about to slide into the front seat, Elijah said quietly, “Sean.”

Heart leaping with foolish hope, Sean paused with his hand on the doorframe and looked at Elijah. His expression was unreadable.

“Do you remember me mentioning Dr. Holm? The man who gave me Maggie?”

“Yes, I remember.” Sean was thrown off-balance by the unexpected question.

Elijah held Sean’s eyes steadily with his own. “Dr. Holm grew up in the pines, Sean. His family owns a cranberry farm, has for generations. That was his entire life until he was in his late thirties. But he’d always dreamed of becoming a doctor, and one day he finally decided that he didn’t want to die saying, ‘If only I’d pursued my dream’. So he quit farming and went back to school. It took a lot of courage and a lot of hard work, but he did it.” Elijah paused. “It’s not too late for you to pursue your dream, Sean,” he said, and then he stepped back from the car. “Drive carefully.”

“I will.” Sean got in the car and closed the door. With fumbling fingers he found the key on the dashboard and fitted it in the ignition. The car purred to life at once, but Sean was too shaken by Elijah’s unexpected words to feel relief that the Beamer really was working perfectly again. He put the car in reverse and backed away from the house, aware every moment of Elijah following him with his eyes. He’d picked Maggie up and was holding her cradled against his chest. For comfort? When he’d cleared the Toyota, Sean shifted into drive, and with a final lift of his hand in farewell and an aching heart, pulled away. He watched Elijah in the rearview mirror until a turn in the driveway finally hid him from view.

As the BMW wound its way along the drive through the woods, Sean couldn’t escape the feeling that he was going in the wrong direction, that if he had any sense at all, he would turn around immediately and go back. But he kept driving.

A sudden glimmer of white shining in the pines on his left caught his attention. He slowed the BMW and searched almost desperately for the white stag, but it must have been his imagination.

Or perhaps it was the sudden flood of tears that were blurring his vision.