“Sir? Excuse me, sir?”
It took Sean a full minute to realize that the polite, if slightly impatient, voice was addressing him. While waiting on line to pay for his groceries at the Pathmark supermarket in Manahawkin, his eyes had passed over The National Enquirer and The Globe and landed on a display of snack cakes on the shelves that stood between his checkout line and the next one over. The words ‘Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets’ had leapt out at him and riveted his attention in a way that would have been ludicrous if it wasn’t so painful.
In an instant, he’d been transported back to last night and Elijah’s laughing consternation when he’d discovered that Sean had never eaten a Tastykake before. Elijah… The colorful boxes of Butterscotch Krimpets and Kandy Kakes faded from view, overlaid by the image of a young man standing in his driveway, holding a calico cat in his arms and looking so very alone…
The young woman at the cash register was staring at him expectantly, waiting for him to start unloading his groceries. The four people in line behind him were also staring, clearly wondering what the hell his problem was and wishing he’d just get over it and get a move on.
“Sorry,” Sean muttered, reddening, and on impulse snatched up a box of Butterscotch Krimpets and set it on the conveyor belt. He quickly began to empty his shopping cart; the crowded, garishly lit supermarket oppressed him after the peaceful silence of the pines, and all he wanted was to get out of there as fast as possible. Every item he picked up came as a surprise, for he’d walked in a fog up and down the aisles, grabbing things at random from the shelves and putting them in the cart without a second glance.
He was relieved to see that, except for the snack cakes, he’d chosen healthfully: salad greens, low fat balsamic dressing, boneless skinned chicken breasts, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, orange juice, bran flakes, 1% milk, pancake mix, maple syrup… Sean started, staring at the container of blueberries in his hand. Oh god…
“Got a club card?” the clerk asked as she picked up the Krimpets and scanned the barcode with a beep.
Sean shook his head and removed the remaining items. He rarely did his own grocery shopping, and had only the most vague clue what a ‘club card’ was. He and Chris used a service that did the shopping for them and delivered the groceries to their apartment on Central Park West every week. Anything they needed in the interim Chris usually picked up.
“That’s okay,” the woman said with a shrug. “I’ll scan this store one. There’s a dollar off the orange juice. You don’t want to miss out on a discount like that.”
“Um, no,” Sean agreed, trying to remember the last time he’d worried about a $1 discount, and feeling ashamed that he couldn’t. “Thanks.”
“No problem. That’ll be $42.78,” she said. “Cash, credit or debit card?”
“Credit.” Sean pulled out his wallet and removed his platinum American Express card. He started to hand it to the clerk, but she shook her head and pointed at a small black box mounted on a stand.
As Sean swiped the card through the machine, he could see her brown eyes widening at the sight of the card and the gold Rolex watch on his left wrist, putting two and two together and coming up with rich. He knew he didn’t have the kind of looks that caught most women’s attention, especially right now with his face and hands beat up, so there could be only one possible explanation for the sudden interest that lit her face.
Money, he thought dispiritedly, putting the credit card back in his wallet. It has a scent more alluring than the most expensive cologne.
Her eyes flicked to his bare left ring finger. “You from around here?” she asked with feigned casualness as she handed him a pen and the receipt to sign.
“No,” Sean said quietly, scribbling his name by the ‘x’, “I’m just a traveler passing through.” The words tasted bitter on his tongue. He handed her back the pen and receipt then gathered up the white plastic carrier bags and set them in the cart. He avoided her gaze as he said a quick ‘thank-you’ and pushed the cart away. She was far from unattractive… but her eyes weren’t the vivid blue of a cloudless summer sky.
There was little traffic on the causeway that connected Long Beach Island to the mainland, and none at all on the ice-coated waters of the bay that were normally a Mecca for sailors and sport fishermen. The population of the island might swell to 150,000 in the summer- a tight squeeze for a place that was 18 miles long and a mere half-mile wide at its widest point- but in the winter months, only a few thousand hardy souls remained in residence.
As he drove across the bridge, Sean lowered the car window despite the almost arctic cold and his lack of a coat. He was hoping that the first scent of salt air and the first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, a glimmer of pewter gray on the far side of the island, would raise his spirits the way it usually did. Only for the first time that Sean could ever recall, the island’s particular brand of magic didn’t work.
A nagging sense of wrongness continued to dog him, as it had ever since he’d driven away from Elijah’s house a few hours earlier. He felt oddly disconnected from reality, as if everything he was experiencing was happening to someone else.
You should have stayed. The treacherous thought snuck up on him again, as it had several times during the drive.
Sean gripped the steering wheel with grim determination. No matter how he parsed it, no matter how often he recalled that moment when he looked away from the Cooper’s hawk sailing the winter sky to catch the admiring look in Elijah’s eyes, he couldn’t see that he’d had any other option than to leave.
If Elijah had wanted me to stay, he’d have asked me. I’ve known him for less than two days. My life is in disarray and I’ve no right to involve anyone else in the mess. The words echoed dully and dutifully in his brain, but sounded more like pitiful excuses than truths.
The creased sheet of notebook paper with the directions that Elijah had given him was lying on the center console, fluttering noisily in the breeze coming in at the window. Sean glanced down at it, taking comfort from the sight of Elijah’s sloping handwriting. The paper had assumed an almost talismanic aspect to Sean, for the directions it contained might, as in a fairy tale, become a symbolic trail of crumbs to lead him back to the pines and Elijah.
If you even can go back. A small shiver unrelated to the cold crawled over his skin. Maybe, as in a fairy tale, he would return to discover the house ringed round with a dense hedge of thorns or hidden by some sorcerous glamour that his mortal eyes could not penetrate. Maybe once you’d left the realm of faërie, you could never return…
A gust of wind snatched at the paper, lifting it from the console and setting it sailing around the interior of the car. Sean grabbed it, his heart pounding with dread at the thought of losing it, and he quickly raised the window. He reached behind him and set the paper down on top of the cardboard box that contained Elijah’s mysterious gift. And it seemed to him as he drew back his arm that the scents of pinesap and woodsmoke and dried grasses stirred the air, displacing the tang of ocean salt.
“Hey, easy does it.” Elijah eased the formula-filled eyedropper away from two tiny grasping paws. “You’ll choke yourself.” But a resentful, high-pitched squeaking told Elijah exactly what the squirrel thought of his concern, and he relented, smiling. “Okay, you can have a little more, only not so fast this time.” He set the dropper back at the squirrel’s frantically working mouth, and the squeaks immediately faded into contented chirps.
Against his will, Elijah’s mind conjured up a mental image of Sean, in his dad’s old jacket, cradling this same baby squirrel in one large hand as he fed it formula. He’d looked absolutely terrified at first that he might screw up somehow, but after a few minutes, when nothing dire happened, he’d really seemed to be enjoying himself. A smile had crinkled the corners of those gorgeous green-gold eyes and lightened the sadness that Elijah had sensed in Sean from the moment their eyes met across a starlit clearing deep in the woods.
It had felt so good and right to share this part of his life with Sean. Elijah ached with the knowledge that he would never again watch Sean’s careful and tender awkwardness and that Sean would never see these babies he’d helped to feed be released into the wild.
You know you had no other choice.
So easy to say… so much harder to believe.
The best thing about the beach house, in Sean’s opinion, was its view. The front of the two-story structure was entirely covered in floor-to-ceiling windows, and presented a virtually unobstructed and breathtaking view of the ocean, stretching to the far horizon where it met the sky. Sean could spend, and had, hours simply sitting and staring out at the sea: ever changing, ever the same, endlessly fascinating.
The worst thing about the house was that it wasn’t a home, at least not the kind of home Sean had wanted, something small and unpretentious in the quiet neighborhood near the lighthouse at the northern tip of the island. Instead, he and Chris had bought this large and impressive showplace that had not only been featured in several nationally-known interior design magazines, but was included in the annual August house tours that gave summer tourists a chance to gape at the homes of the rich and famous.
The minimalist architecture and Danish modern furniture impressed the hell out of the clients Chris insisted they invite down to be wined and dined, courtesy of an excellent little catering business in Harvey Cedars. It sometimes seemed as if their entire lives revolved around the company, even their rare vacations dedicated to it. Chris’s commitment to Clicktwice was fierce, and had been since the day that Sean had hired the smart, ambitious, attractive young woman as his assistant.
Because of this, Sean always arrived at the beach house with mixed emotions, although never more so than this time. He honestly hadn’t known where else to go when it had been borne in on him at New Year’s, once and for all, that Clicktwice meant more to Chris than he personally ever would. Here at least there would be solitude and silence and the comforting aura of childhood nostalgia. Perhaps he would finally be able to figure out what the hell he was going to do about the company, about Chris and their future together… or apart.
Only he hadn’t factored meeting Elijah into the equation. By comparison with Elijah’s home in the woods, the ultra-modern glass-and-wood rectangle set among Japanese pines seemed even more stark and uninviting as Sean pulled up and pressed the garage door opener clipped to the sun visor.
After parking the BMW in the three-car garage that was home to an assortment of beach chairs, skim boards, umbrellas and mismatched flip-flops, Sean disarmed the security system and unpacked the car. The interior of the house was cool- the heat had been set to the minimum necessary to prevent pipes from freezing- but then it felt that way even in the summer. Chris didn’t like to have the windows open, worrying that the damp salt air would make things musty and mildewed, so the air conditioning and dehumidifier ran non-stop when they were there.
Tempted to throw open the windows just because he could, Sean instead adjusted the thermostat of the computerized climate control system to 68, and as he went into the kitchen to put the groceries away, he could hear the furnace kick on, a welcome sound in the otherwise silent house.
The answering machine lived at one end of the silver-flecked black granite countertop. As Sean had suspected, its red light was flashing insistently. Deciding it was probably best to get it over with, Sean punched the blue message button.
You have eight new messages, the machine intoned.
beep. ‘Sean, it’s Chris.’ Sean almost started at the sound of her voice. For a disconcerting moment, it sounded like that of a stranger. That sense of unreality swept over him again, as if he stood between two worlds, with one foot in each. ‘You left your cell phone here. I hope it was an accident, because if it wasn’t, don’t you think that’s a little immature, even for you? Anyway, give me a call when you get in. We need to discuss that deal with Northwest Airlines.’
beep. ‘Sean? pause. Sean, please pick up the phone. pause. Shit. Look, Tim Griffin is waiting to hear back from me. I don’t want us to lose this contract. Call me as soon as you get this message.’
beep. ‘Sean, I know you’re there. For Christ’s sake, would you please pick up the phone? This is getting ridiculous.’
While Sean put the perishables away in the nearly-empty stainless steel refrigerator- only a few lonely bottles of condiments were in residence- the messages continued to play, more or less in the same vein, until a frustrated Chris stated that she’d called Tim Griffin back and if Sean didn’t like what she’d told him, well then, tough luck.
Sean slammed the refrigerator door closed. Fine. I don’t give a flying fuck what you told him, Chris. You were the one who invited Griffin and his wife over on New Year’s Eve. The New Year’s Eve that we were supposed to spend alone, not with 100 of our ‘closest’ friends, remember?
He pinched the bridge of his nose against an incipient headache as he recalled that disastrous night when he’d finally reached the end of his tether. He was struck anew by the tone of her voice, the impatient one she used when she thought Sean was behaving childishly. How was it that two people could live together for so long but know each other so little? He’d tried, he really had, to explain to Chris the reasons why he had to get away for a while, but clearly he hadn’t gotten his point across.
But then in all fairness was that her fault? He’d allowed himself to drift along on the tide of her decisive personality for too long, and there had been a time in their early years together when he’d been as gung-ho about the business as she. Was it any wonder Chris now thought he was going through some sort of ‘mid-life crisis’ that would eventually pass? I’m such a total fuck-up, he thought dejectedly.
One more beep and the final message began to play. ‘Sean, look, I understand you’re upset about New Year’s,’ Chris said in a softer voice. ‘I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t realize it was so important to you. But we got the contract with Northwest, so you have to admit it turned out for the best. Why don’t you come home and we’ll talk about it. Maybe we can get away for a while after the directors’ meeting, just the two of us, someplace warm like Acapulco or Hawaii. Think about it, Sean, please.’
Sean stood there, paralyzed, still holding the handle of the refrigerator door. Chris’s rare softer moments always got to him, even if he later regretted it, even if he half-suspected that it was only an act to appease him until the next time. Immediately, the inevitable guilt began washing over him, guilt for his disloyal thoughts about the person who more than anyone else was responsible for the success and wealth he currently enjoyed.
He walked slowly over to the phone, while he debated whether or not to call Chris, to accept her apology and tell her he’d return home.
In another of those disconcerting, disorienting moments, it seemed that he was back in the pines, standing in front of the fingerboard at that sandy crossroads near the Quaker Bridge. Trails led away in every direction. One was the well-trodden, familiar path back to the city and his life with Chris. The others were little used, shadowy and frightening, and headed straight into the unknown depths of the forest.
Sean’s hand hovered uncertainly over the phone.
And then he recalled Elijah’s parting words that morning: It’s not too late for you to pursue your dream, Sean.. A renewed sense of purpose and determination filled him.
He pulled his hand away.
Instead of calling Chris, he picked up the cardboard box from the end of the kitchen counter and carried it upstairs to his study on the second floor.
The study was the one place in the house that was truly Sean’s, and it was as much a retreat as it was a place to work; in addition to a state-of-the-art computer system and office equipment, there was a comfortable brown leather sofa where Sean had spent more than a few nights sleeping, for one reason or another, and assorted oddments he’d picked up over the years, mostly on his walks along the shore line at low tide, when the ocean retreated and left behind gifts for those who cared to hunt for them.
As he entered the room with the box held securely in his arms, his eyes sought out those familiar, comforting treasures: driftwood twisted into fantastical shapes, a large clear bowl half-filled with pieces of glass weathered smoky-smooth by the tumble of sand and water, and a curio cabinet whose shelves were filled with seashells: whorled whelks and cat’s eyes, fragile angel’s wings and tiny colorful coquilles.
In pride of place over the sofa hung a hand-colored 19th century lithograph of the island that had belonged to his dad, and had once hung in the family room of their house in Queens. On either side of it were two large photographs Sean had bought at an art gallery in Barnegat Light: one of purple-gray storm clouds looming over the angry white capped ocean while jagged streaks of lightning shimmered from cloud to water, and the other of the Barnegat lighthouse, standing tall and proud against a sunset sky suffused with soft pinks and golds and lavenders.
The house his parents had rented when he and Mack were kids had been decorated in a way that in retrospect definitely verged on the camp, with ceramic lamps shaped like lighthouses or sea captains, shell-decorated fishnet draped across the walls and painted clamshells for ashtrays. But Sean and Mack had adored every single over-the-top square inch of it, especially their twin beds shaped like boats, or pirate’s ships, as the two boys preferred to call them.
Other than Sean’s study, however, there wasn’t a trace of the sea to be found anywhere in the oh-so-fashionably decorated house. After they’d closed on the house, Sean in his naiveté had suggested a nautical-themed décor. After all, it was a beach house, as he’d pointed out to Chris. But he’d been quickly disabused of the notion by Chris and by the interior designer she’d hired at a ridiculous price to decorate the house. Apparently, having a place at the beach that actually looked like it belonged at the beach was considered tacky in the extreme.
It had been yet another instance, if he needed any more proof, of what he’d long ago suspected: he wasn’t really meant to walk in the world of the rich and powerful, a world Chris traversed so effortlessly in her Manolo Blahniks. It was only a fluke of timing that his little basement business had taken off the way it had, not some grand destiny.
Once upon a time, growing up, Sean had imagined that it would be very cool to be one of those guys in a fairy tale- a shepherd or goat boy- who ended up king of a great realm, living in a castle and married to a beautiful princess. But not any more. All he felt was pity for the poor suckers, and a suspicion that they secretly would much rather return to their quiet mountainsides, where their only responsibility was to tend to their herds of goats and flocks of sheep. Simply because someone wore robes of ermine and velvet, ate off plates made of solid gold and ruled a kingdom didn’t mean he would ever truly fit in.
Maybe the best fairy tales, Sean thought now, were the ones without castles or princesses. Like the one wherein a magical white stag came to the rescue of a lost and frightened traveler and brought him for succor to a young man both kind-hearted and beautiful…
He sank cross-legged onto the carpet, and rested his back against the sofa, exactly as Elijah had done last night during their impromptu movie double feature. Holding the image of Elijah’s flushed laughing face and sparkling eyes in his mind, Sean let it chase away any lingering coldness left by the unwelcoming house and Chris’s impatient messages. Only then did he feel in a proper frame of mind to open his gift.
The box was three-quarters filled with pink foam peanuts, and involuntary amusement quirked Sean’s mouth, for as he’d speculated about the contents of the box during the drive to the island, among the thoughts that had flitted through his brain had been the completely absurd and illogical one that Elijah had given him one of the baby squirrels. Well, the poor thing would have suffocated for sure if that had been the case, and pink foam peanuts were no adequate substitute for the kind that Elijah fed Rocky.
He could almost hear Elijah’s infectious high-pitched giggle as Sean told him what he’d imagined. Sighing, he cupped his hands and scooped the foam peanuts to one end, uncovering a rectangular package wrapped in several layers of white tissue paper. A piece of notebook paper, the same kind of paper Elijah had used to write the directions, was taped to it.
Sean detached the note and quickly unfolded it, burning with curiosity to discover what Elijah had written to him. The note consisted of one brief sentence, written in black ink, and the words leapt off the page at him:
Because you can see the magic.
It was signed, simply, Elijah.
“Elijah,” Sean whispered, and lightly traced the young man’s signature with his forefinger. Then he carefully pulled apart the rustling tissue paper to reveal a drawing, matted in ivory white and framed in gold. He balanced the drawing on his knees while he set the box and wrappings aside, and then turned his full attention to it.
He recognized the artist immediately, even before his eyes found the familiar initials ‘HBW’ in the lower right hand corner. It was a drawing of the pines, more impressionistic than the flower drawings in Hannah Byron Wood’s journal, and so evocative that Sean could almost hear the whistle of the wind in the treetops and the soft secretive rustle of pine needles.
It took him a few moments, however, to discover the secret hidden within the drawing and when he did, Sean’s breath caught and he experienced the same sense of wonder and magic that he had three days ago. For hidden among the pines, unnoticeable at first or even second glance, was the ghostly outline of a white stag, its antlered head turned toward the viewer, its eyes glittering like distant stars from the shadows of the trees.
How could Elijah have given this away? was his first coherent thought, but he recalled Elijah’s fiercely spoken words when Sean had voiced his objection by the car. He understood now why Elijah had asked him not to open the box until he reached the shore. Elijah had suspected that Sean would never have accepted such a gift if he had tried to give it to him face to face. Oh Elijah…
Sean sat there with the drawing on his lap for a long time, while he relived the moment in the starlit clearing when he had looked up to see the white stag- and every moment that had come afterward. He had worried that some day the memory would fade and wither like fallen rose petals, leaving only the faintest trace of once vivid scent behind. But now, thanks to Elijah’s generosity, his remembrance of that magical meeting would never grow dim.
He lowered his forehead until it rested against the dull gold of the gilt frame. The ache in his heart was an almost physical pain. This was the most wondrous gift he had ever been given in his life, but he didn’t want it to be all he ever had of the white stag… or Elijah.
The phone was ringing when Elijah entered the house through the mudroom door, and he dashed across the kitchen, narrowly avoiding stepping on Maggie, and snatched up the receiver just before the answering machine clicked on.
“Oh my god, Elijah, you’re there. Where have you been? Are you all right?” It was Hannah, sounding beside herself with worry.
“Of course I’m all right,” he replied, wondering what on earth she was talking about, and unable to suppress an unreasoning sense of disappointment. You didn’t give him your phone number. Why on earth would you expect him to be calling you? “I was just out looking for a place to release the possum I’ve been taking care of.”
“Is he with you?” Hannah demanded.
“The opossum?” he asked, confused. He crouched down and held out his arm so Rocky could scamper up it to his usual perch on Elijah’s right shoulder. “No, he’s out in the-"
“Not the opossum!” Hannah nearly shrieked. “That man, the one you were with when Bill met you in the woods yesterday.”
Elijah straightened so abruptly that Rocky nearly fell off his shoulder and had to scrabble for a hold on the collar of his flannel shirt. “How on earth did you know about… Oh, you’ve been talking to Katie.” He sighed and ran a frustrated hand through his hair. His sister and Katie talked on the phone at least once a week, and Hannah was kept abreast of all the local gossip. Nothing could stay secret in the pines for long, especially if it involved the Woodjin. He should have realized Hannah would hear about Sean, and called her as a preemptive strike. His sister might be 5 foot nothing and weigh 90 pounds soaking wet, but you didn’t want to mess with her when she was mad.
“A good thing, too,” Hannah retorted, “or I’d never know what’s going on, would I? Like my crazy brother bringing home strange men. And you haven’t answered my question- is he there with you?”
“Hannah, that’s really none of your business.” Maggie, winding in and out of his legs, meowed disapprovingly. You stay out of it, Elijah mouthed at her.
“Oh my god, he’s still there, isn’t he?” exclaimed Hannah, leaping to the wrong conclusion. “Elijah, are you out of your mind letting some stranger into the house? Who is this guy? What do you know about him?”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Would you please calm down? He’s not still here. He left this morning.” It was difficult to keep his voice level and unemotional, but he must have done a credible job of it, for Hannah didn’t pick up on the sorrow and regret underlying those last four words.
“Well, thank god for that,” his sister said with relief. “But it doesn’t make what you did any less irresponsible. What if he’d been some kind of psycho? What if he’d attacked you or something?”
“I’m sure Fred would have rushed to my rescue,” Elijah said lightly. Rocky chattered indignantly in his ear. “And Rocky, too.”
“It’s not funny,” Hannah snapped. “You shouldn’t be taking risks like that, Lij.”
“I was called, Hannah. I’m sure Katie must have told you that.” They never spoke openly of who and what Elijah was; the habit of caution, drummed into them from childhood, was too deeply ingrained. “He was in danger, and he was scared and hurt. He needed my help.”
“You could have taken him to Dr. Ian,” Hannah insisted stubbornly, unwilling to let him off the hook.
“His injuries weren’t that serious, and it was closer to bring him here.”
Which was true, but it wasn’t the whole truth, and he had no intention of telling his sister the whole truth. If he admitted to the attraction he felt for Sean, she would only worry more.
Even though she was two years younger than him, Hannah had assumed a protective role in his life from the time they were little. She had been there for him through all the ups and downs in the years since their father died, and especially since their mom had left.
While Elijah sometimes wished she’d remember that he was an adult now and had been living on his own for nearly five years, without her support, the solitary road he had to travel would have been far, far harder. His voice softened as he said, “Sean is a good man, Hannah, a kind man. He would never have harmed me.”
Not deliberately. But it hurt like hell to watch him leave. It hurts right now to know that he might still be here if I wasn’t the Woodjin.
“Maggie liked him,” he went on, smiling down at the calico cat whose amber eyes were fixed unblinkingly on his face, “and she’s nearly as overprotective as you are.”
“Elijah…” Hannah said his name on a long exhale of breath. “Maybe everything turned out okay this time, but you took a terrible chance. Sweetie, I couldn’t bear to see you hurt again.”
Oh Hannah, it’s too late.
“The situation was completely different then,” Elijah replied. “And I can’t stop being what I am. Even if it means I’ll be hurt sometimes.”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is to hear you say that?” Hannah asked sadly. “But listen, Lij. I’ve been thinking. Maybe Jordan and I should move in with you, at least during the week. Lawrence is out of town on location half the time anyway. We could go home on weekends or he could come out to the cabin…”
“No.” Elijah was emphatic. “Absolutely no way. I’m not going to come between you and Lawrence. My god, Hannah, how can you possibly think that would be a good idea, knowing what almost happened to mom and dad?”
“Lawrence…” she began.
“…is your husband, and he’s already being asked to deal with a lot more than most husbands ever have to,” Elijah reminded her. “Please, don’t even mention to him that the idea crossed your mind, okay?”
Hannah sighed in defeat. “Okay. I won’t say anything.”
“Thanks. Lawrence is almost a foot taller than me and outweighs me by 100 pounds. I don’t want him mad at me.”
“Lawrence adores you just as much as Jordan and I do, and you know it. Look, I’m sorry for freaking out on you like that, it’s just that I worry about you so much.”
Elijah wished there was some promise he could make, some comfort he could offer to ease her worry, but he couldn’t, wouldn’t lie to her. Too much grief had been caused in the past by those kinds of lies. Instead he said, “Well, if you’re looking for a way to make it up to me, bring me some more Shiner Bock next time you visit. I’m almost out.”
It was on the tip of his tongue to mention Sean, to tell Hannah how he’d never heard of Shiner Bock, or ever eaten a Tastykake, and that he loved the pines, and that he thought the white stag the most beautiful and magical being he’d ever seen in his life, and that he’d gentled to Elijah’s touch in the midst of his nightmare, and that he’d looked last night as if he would have kissed Elijah if he’d only been given the slightest encouragement…
“You and your beer, Elijah,” Hannah was saying. “Okay, it’s a deal, and if the weather isn’t too bad, I’ll bring it over this weekend. We haven’t been out to see you since Christmas. That’s way too long.”
“Yeah, it is. I hope it doesn’t-" Elijah began, but he was interrupted by a childish wail of ‘Momma!’ in the background. It was Jordan.
“Oh god, I’m gonna have to run. Jordan just woke up from his nap. Love you, Lij. See you this weekend.”
“Love you, too. Hug that little monkey for me.”
Elijah slowly hung up the phone. “Well,” he said in a determinedly cheerful voice to Maggie and Rocky, “let’s go put on some music. Something we can dance to.” But from the way the gray squirrel and the calico cat pressed up against him, offering him their wordless comfort, he knew that while he might have fooled Hannah, they weren’t fooled in the least.
Sean did his best to pull himself together and start applying himself to the reason he’d come to the beach house, which wasn’t to wallow in self-pity and sadness and might-have-beens, but come to some firm decisions about his future.
He set aside the drawing, carefully, and went into the master bathroom. He took a quick shower, resolutely closing his mind off from any thought of Elijah, and changed into a favorite pair of faded navy sweats that Chris had unsuccessfully tried to convince him to throw out. Then he made a healthy salad for lunch, and ate it standing by the window, staring out at the turbulent ocean, gray under an equally leaden sky. When he was done eating, he returned to the study and booted up his Mac.
If he was seriously going to consider reviving his long-dead dream of becoming a doctor, he needed to find out what was involved: where he could go to school and what courses he would need to take. Sean spent some time googling post-baccalaureate programs, bookmarking sites, requesting catalogs and taking careful notes, all the while resisting the urge to set aside this research and look instead for information about Elijah.
The temptation to hunt down the younger man’s address and phone number was powerful. Even if the information was unlisted, Sean wasn’t a computer geek for nothing and he had access to resources that the average person didn’t. But to do this seemed the height of dishonesty when Elijah hadn’t offered it to him freely.
He’d set Hannah Wood’s drawing on the computer desk, propped up against the wall to the left of the computer, and his eyes frequently strayed from the flat panel monitor to stare at it. Elijah’s generosity still staggered him. It also humbled him, and yet at the same time renewed that sense of self-worth that he’d gotten from Elijah’s words the night before: 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.
No, he would not, could not betray Elijah’s belief in his decency.
When Sean had done as much preliminary investigation into post-bac programs as he could, and feeling flush with the exhilaration of taking his first concrete steps toward a new life, he rewarded himself by logging into the iTunes store and downloading The Stone Roses album that Elijah had played for him. It was excellent music, he reasoned dispassionately, and it would be silly not to have it on his computer. There didn’t have to be any ulterior motive for downloading it, such as feeling that it would bring him closer to Elijah again.
He turned up the volume on the computer speakers and settled down on the sofa, leaning his head back and closing his eyes while the opening notes of the first song with its insistent, hypnotic beat, washed over him.
Who had he been trying to fool? This had everything to do with bringing Elijah closer to him again.
I don’t have to sell my soul
He’s already in me
Since the moment he’d first set eyes on Elijah, hell, perhaps even before then, when Elijah had been no more than a gentle touch and a soothing voice in the midst of a nightmare, Sean had been attracted to him, an attraction that had grown by leaps and bounds during the hours they spent together.
I don’t need to sell my soul
He’s already in me
Now the desire he’d fought against laid claim to his senses as a series of images flashed through his brain, like a slideshow played on fast forward: Elijah reaching up on tiptoe, a thin strip of pale skin revealed in the gap between tee shirt and jeans; Elijah focusing his intent blue gaze on Sean to the exclusion of all else as he listened to the wildly improbable story of Sean’s meeting with the Jersey Devil; Elijah hugging a cranky old donkey and holding an injured opossum; Elijah in an ugly gray hat gazing at him with admiration in his eyes; Elijah laughing as he tried to free his hair from Rocky’s clutches; Elijah sitting at his feet, head tilted back to look up at him…
I wanna be adored
I wanna be adored
The consequence of this mental slideshow was inevitable and unstoppable. This time, there was no Fred with his doleful and phlegmatic presence to help Sean laugh his arousal away. He was helpless to resist his body’s response; not sure he even wanted to. He raised the hem of his sweatshirt… then slowly worked the fingers of his right hand beneath the waistband of his sweats and boxers to wrap firmly around his hardening cock.
I don’t have to sell my soul
He’s already in me
I don’t need to sell my soul
He’s already in me
His mind played out the way he’d have liked last night to end: with him sliding off the couch beside Elijah, pushing him down on his back on the carpet, undressing him and exploring every inch of that pale perfect skin with his hands and mouth…
I wanna be adored
I wanna be adored
You adore me
You adore me
His hand circled and pumped in rhythm to the music; it took only a half-dozen strokes before he was coming into his cupped palm with Elijah’s name a hoarse cry torn from his throat.
Sean slumped back, panting, while the sweetness of release tingled through him, and he fought desperately to hold onto his fantasy. But it vanished, leaving him alone with his bitter regret, and the final, fading chords of the song.
Dial up sucked. Elijah listened to the succession of beeps and whining sounds as the modem on his Mac connected to the Internet, and thought that someone like Sean probably hadn’t used a dial up connection in years. He wished, for at least the millionth time, that he could get either cable or DSL out here in the woods.
His attempt to cheer himself up by playing a song from the latest album by Gorillaz had been a dismal failure. The techno beat dance music of Dare only made him wonder what it would be like to dance with Sean, whether he would approve of Elijah’s choice of music or prefer something slower, something they could sway to, arms wrapped around each other… Like the jazz music he was listening to right now, as a matter of fact, a sexy and seductive sax tune played by Pat LaBarbera. Only Hope, it was called.
He hadn’t been able to get Maggie or Rocky interested in dancing either. Maggie had remained seated primly on the sofa, her long tail curled around her paws and her amber eyes fixed reproachfully on his face, while Rocky burrowed behind the sofa cushions so that only the tip of his bushy tail showed. Maggie hadn’t wanted Sean to leave, and Rocky was upset; he sensed Elijah’s sorrowful mood and it distressed him.
Maggie didn’t understand. To her feline mind, it was really quite straightforward: Elijah liked Sean, Maggie like Sean, and therefore Sean should stay. She had already asked him several times when Sean would be coming back, and refused to accept his answer: Sean’s not coming back.
After a few depressing minutes, Elijah had ejected the Gorillaz CD, and switched to the jazz. He decided to go on Amazon and order a couple of CDs that had been well reviewed in the NME. Maybe that would do the trick and cheer him up; it usually did. He hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d told Sean that he couldn’t get by without his music.
He ordered the CDs and fully intended to end his Internet session there. What happened next seemed almost to happen without his conscious volition. Even as he told himself it was a stupid, stupid, stupid idea, he was opening his bookmark list and clicking on Google.
“sean astin” he typed, and hit return.
The large number of matches that came up stunned him. The first hit was for the web site of a company called Clicktwice. That must be the Internet advertising company Sean owned. Elijah took a quick look at the site, but it wasn’t of much interest, being a corporate web site geared at current and potential clients. But the roster of existing clients read like a who’s who of major corporations: Microsoft, General Motors, Coca-Cola and a host of others.
Elijah knew that anyone who could afford a summer home in Loveladies was pretty well off, but a sinking sensation filled him as he clicked back and continued scanning the list of Google results. He was beginning to realize that Sean had grossly understated the truth when he’d told Elijah his basement business had ‘taken off’.
Clicktwice posts record profits in fourth quarter of 2005…
Clicktwice turns down rumored $1 billion buy-out offer…
Clicktwice CEO Sean Astin and Company President Christine Harrell attend Met Opera Gala…
Elijah paused, chewing at his lip. I shouldn’t do this, he thought, but he placed the mouse cursor over the link anyway and clicked. And slowly, pixel by pixel, a photo emerged on the screen: Sean, looking almost unbearably handsome in a tuxedo, walking up a flight of marble stairs hand-in-hand with a smiling, auburn-haired woman who could only, of course, be Chris.
Almost greedily, Elijah drank in the sight of Sean. God, he was so gorgeous. Sean was looking straight at the camera, and his slightly crooked smile deepened the lines at the corners of his eyes and for a moment it seemed to Elijah as if that smile was aimed directly at him. His heart actually flip-flopped. But he could no longer ignore the woman at Sean’s side, and he felt utterly deflated as he studied her.
Elijah didn’t know a Versace from a K-Mart special, but Chris’s deceptively simple strapless black dress and the spangled silver stole draped at her elbows screamed ‘designer’ even to one as unknowledgeable as he was. With her upswept hair affixed by a diamond-studded clip that matched the necklace she wore, spiky high heels on her feet and her face flawlessly made up, Chris looked stunning, sophisticated, glamorous… all the things Elijah was not nor ever would be. He didn’t even own a suit, for god’s sake, much less a tux, just a well-worn tan corduroy jacket and a few ties suitable for the rare dinner out at a restaurant with Hannah and Zach and Mom when they were visiting. It wasn’t that his family was poor or that there was anything here to be ashamed of, but he hadn’t realized just how rich Sean was. It’s not as if you could ever be together anyway. Why does it matter?
Elijah started as Maggie leapt up into his lap. He buried his nail-bitten, disgraceful fingers in the softness of her fur and whispered, “I’m okay. I guess I needed to see this, Maggie. Better to know the truth, don’t you think? That way I won’t have any more regrets over not asking him to stay. He’s completely out of my league, and besides, couples have arguments or misunderstandings all the time. That doesn’t mean they’re separating for good. Sean was confused and hurting, but he and Chris have probably already talked it out and made up.”
Mrrrrrowr. Maggie sounded indignant.
“That’s sweet of you, but you know you’re prejudiced. I’m short, skinny and I have really weird eyes. Look at her, Maggie. Just look at her.”
Maggie scrunched her eyes shut and refused to look.
“You’re not helping matters.” Resolutely, Elijah closed the web browser and logged off the Internet. But the image of Sean, wealthy, successful, handsome Sean, lingered. Such a contrast to the man Elijah had met in the woods, still handsome of course, but lost, sad and strangely alone.
Last night I was privileged to see a fairy tale creature step right out of the pages of a book and into my life, and he was more beautiful and more magical than in any dream I ever had. I guess when it comes right down to it I wouldn’t trade what happened last night for anything. I’m so damned lucky to have met the white stag.
Elijah fiddled with the silver ring on his right hand, the ring his father had given to him the day he died, the ring Elijah, too, would pass on some day. He wasn’t simply short, skinny Elijah with the strange eyes. He was also the White Stag, beautiful and magical, a creature right out of a fairy tale. Only… Sean didn’t know that Elijah was both. He would never know, and it was better that way.
It was tempting in that moment, when the hurt and loss were still raw, to give in to the lure of transforming into the stag, to take off into the pines and leave his other self and all his worries behind.
But that way led to danger: not only the danger of encountering his ancient enemy in the woods, but of never wanting to return to his human form. He had been cautioned over and over by his father never to transform as a means of escape, but only in fulfillment of his duties as the Woodjin. He could lose himself- his real self- forever if he wasn’t vigilant, for to be the white stag was to be free in a way no human could ever be free, to experience the world with senses almost painfully keen to every scent and sound. It was exhilarating beyond belief… but it was also a trap. For the most part Elijah had held fast to his father’s wise advice, although there had been a few times over the years when the temptation had proven too great to resist, and the temptation right now was stronger than it ever had been…
Maggie had opened her eyes again, and was watching him anxiously.
“I won’t do it,” Elijah promised her softly. “I promise you.”
Instead, he’d go out to the barn and give Sonny and Cher a good grooming, maybe even get out the horse vac, though he and the horses all hated the noisy machine. If Hannah was coming to visit, he wanted them to look their best. And Paco had kicked his stall door this morning, cutting himself on the fetlock. It wasn’t a serious cut, but he wanted to clean and treat it again. By the time he finished those chores, and a few other things that needed doing around the barn, it would nearly be time to feed the babies their evening meal. He’d have managed to get through the afternoon.
He set Maggie gently on the floor and stood up. The animals always kept him busy and reminded him of his responsibilities and of how blessed he was to lead the life he did, even if it was lonely at times.
But as Elijah went to turn off the stereo, his mind wasn’t on his animals. He was wondering if Sean had opened his gift yet, and what he thought of it.
Sean took a walk on the beach late in the afternoon, but the falling darkness soon drove him back inside; it would be some time before he felt comfortable being alone out-of-doors after dark. It was a far shorter walk than he’d have liked to take. He’d hoped to tire himself out sufficiently that he could sleep through the night without dreaming, either about the white stag retreating from him into the forest or about the Devil chasing him through it.
After he returned to the house- trying not to look over his shoulder or jump at every unexpected sound as he hurried up from the beach- he turned on the gas fireplace in the living room. Sean stood for a time warming his cold hands and face while he watched the fire’s reflection in the tall windows. The dancing flames were a cheerful sight, but a gas fire was no substitute for the real thing. He missed the crackle and tangy smell of burning pine.
He cooked sautéed chicken breasts and brown rice for dinner- about the extent of his limited culinary skills- and opened a bottle of very expensive white wine that had been a gift from one of their client guests in August. He carried his plate and wine glass into the living room and ate in front of the huge flat panel HDTV, flipping aimlessly through the endless sports and news shows and sitcom reruns until he finally settled on the Weather Channel.
The forecast for the area was for more bitter cold weather tomorrow with light snow developing in the morning then becoming heavier, with a total accumulation of 3-4” predicted by the time the storm passed through. Sean frowned as the meteorologist pointed at a fast moving weather system in the southeast that was headed their way. Sean had been considering heading back to the city the following afternoon.
Like a good many New Yorkers, however, he wasn’t experienced at driving in the snow. Having a car in the city was a convenience, not a necessity, and the Beemer spent as many days as not parked in the garage around the corner from his apartment. If the weather was inclement, he used the company’s limo service, although he preferred to drive himself whenever possible.
Still, it wasn’t as if he was in a rush to get back, and any excuse to put off the inevitable confrontation with Chris was appealing, even a snowstorm. Now if only he could get out of returning her phone calls. Sean pushed the last bits of chicken and rice around on his plate, his appetite gone.
He returned to the kitchen and poured himself a second glass of wine for fortification. Then he grabbed the portable phone and punched in her cell number. He was being a fucking coward, and he hated it.
Nevertheless, relief swept through him when he got Chris’s voicemail instead of Chris herself. Cowardly maybe, but he’d only just taken the first tentative baby steps toward a new life and career, after all, and he didn’t want anything to screw with his newfound and shaky sense of self-confidence. And that was something at which Chris was an expert.
“Chris, it’s Sean,” he said when he was prompted to leave a message. “I’m sorry not to have called you back sooner, but I had some car trouble on the way here and only got in a little while ago.” It wasn’t technically a lie, and Chris wouldn’t believe the true story if Sean told her. “Everything’s fine with the car now, though, not to worry.”
“Listen, I expect to be back in a couple of days, and we can talk then. I’m totally fine with what you told Tim Griffin, by the way.” He hesitated, and then forced the words out: “I’m glad we nailed that contract. Good work.”
Sean said good-bye, and quickly disconnected. He stared down at the phone, uncertain what to do next. He had the rest of the evening to kill, and comparisons between where he was now and where he’d been at the same time yesterday were invidious and depressing. He had to pull himself together, that was all, and find something to take his mind off Elijah.
He gave up trying to become absorbed in a Dick Francis mystery after re-reading the same paragraph four times because his uncooperative brain was too occupied with wondering what Elijah was doing, and how Maggie and Rocky and Fred were and if the baby squirrels were thriving and if Elijah had decided when he would release the opossum back into the wild… He reshelved the book and turned on the TV again, but couldn’t find anything that held his interest; even Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert lacked their usual appeal.
Eventually Sean decided it was a lost cause, and he might just as well go to bed. But not in the bedroom he shared with Chris. Though he was trying not to think too much about what had happened earlier in his study, when he’d jerked off with Elijah’s name on his lips and Elijah’s image in his brain, the intensity of that orgasm had proved to him just how lacking his and Chris’s love life was and had been since the beginning. It would feel like a lie to sleep in that room.
So instead of the luxury of a king size heated waterbed in the master bedroom, he opted for one of the smaller pillow top mattresses in a guest bedroom. He gathered an armload of sheets, pillowcases, and blankets from the linen closet, and quickly made up the bed. He opened the bedroom window a few inches so that he could hear the rush and roar of the ocean, and set Hannah Wood’s drawing on the bedside table facing toward him.
After stripping to tee shirt and boxers, Sean slid between the soft Egyptian cotton sheets and settled back against the even softer down pillows with one arm behind his head. The misty outline of the white stag among the pine trees, and the gleam of his dark eyes from the shadows held Sean in thrall until, lulled by the soothing, repetitive sound of the waves crashing on the beach, he fell asleep.
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.
He awoke drenched in sweat with his legs twisted in the covers as if he’d been fighting the sheets and blankets in his sleep. The sense of loss was if anything even greater than it had been the first time he’d had the dream. He untangled himself with some difficulty, and swung his legs around until he was sitting on the edge of the bed. He rested his head in his hands. Was he going to revisit this dream every night from now on?
Sean raised his head and gazed blearily out the window. To his surprise, it was light out. He picked his Rolex up from the nightstand to check the time. 6:30. He might as well get up then, because he sure as fuck wasn’t going to be able to fall asleep again. But rather than sit around moping, he’d take that long walk on the beach that he’d wanted to take yesterday.
If you walked far enough along the sweeping curve of the island’s northern shoreline, you eventually reached a massive stone jetty that demarcated the inlet where ocean and bay met in a swirl of wicked currents. Those currents had brought many a sailor to grief, and were the reason the majestic red and white lighthouse that guarded the inlet had been built, though it had been many years since it had been actively in use.
The beach was wider and wilder at this point, the houses no longer perched right above the sand, but set back behind a shimmering green sea of dune grass. Sean had once read in an article in the island’s local paper, The Beachcomber, that red foxes lived in this area, presumably brought to the island as hideaways in some fishing boat, though the writer had speculated that they might have braved the waters of the bay and swum from the mainland.
Although he’d scrutinized the dunes during his walks, Sean had never seen the slightest trace of a fox himself, but he wondered now whether Elijah’s presence might bring them out of hiding. He’d heard and read about people with an affinity for animals, like horse whisperers and those people on TV who claimed to be psychics and would cure your pet’s bad habits or health problems.
Such claims had seemed vaguely like snake oil salesmanship to him, for surely such people only existed in movies like Thomasina, but after meeting Elijah, he had to admit he was wrong, as he was wrong about so many things of late. He recalled that truly dreadful movie adaptation of Doctor Doolittle with Rex Harrison. Maybe it was fanciful of him, but it had almost seemed at times as if Elijah was really talking to his animals. Now if Elijah was cast as Doctor Doolittle, there would be a movie worth watching. He was certainly beautiful enough to be a movie star.
It was low tide and the hard-packed sand near the water’s edge made for easy walking. Sean had debated taking off his shoes and socks, as he normally would have so he could splash in the water, but decided against it. Even the usual fishermen, with whom Sean always made it a point to stop and chat, weren’t in evidence. The beach was completely deserted except for some gulls resting in shallow depressions in the sand and a few terns that hovered above him, staring down as if amazed that any human would be so stupid as to be out on such a day.
Sean stopped and crouched down to let a hissing wavelet run over his right hand. He let out a little yelp of surprise; the water was even colder than he’d expected. Barefoot was definitely not the way to go. Even a hobbit would want shoes on a day like today. Wiping his fingers dry on the leg of his jeans, he stood and continued walking, head lowered against the brisk northeast wind. He’d bundled up as best he could, layering two shirts, a sweatshirt and a sweater under a red Goretex jacket, and winding a black watch plaid wool scarf around his neck and over his chin. He probably looked ridiculous, but there was no one to see him except the gulls and terns.
There were shells scattered all along the beach where the tide had started to retreat, and Sean discovered an unusually large and perfect cat’s eye shell half-hidden in some seaweed. He picked the shell up and studied it as he brushed the sand away from its smooth convex surface. He wished he could give it to Elijah. It seemed the sort of gift the young man would like. Sighing, he put the shell in his pocket, and walked on.
By the time he reached his goal, the jetty near the lighthouse, Sean was actually perspiring beneath his layers of clothes. It was a challenging walk even on a balmy summer morning, and he was weary from too many nights without a decent amount of sleep. Nevertheless, he determinedly began to climb up the barnacle-encrusted black rocks to the top of the jetty. He went cautiously, for there were slippery patches of kelp and puddles of seawater lurking in wait. He made it to the top safely, however, and stood gazing around him, glad of the chance to rest and catch his breath.
To his left the lighthouse dominated the horizon, the deep brick red of its upper half warming the drab winter landscape, while to his right the jetty extended several hundred yards out into the ocean. A bell buoy tossing on the water clanged dolefully just beyond it, and the waves crashed against the rocks, sending white foam spraying through the air.
Across the surging waters of the inlet was the southernmost tip of Island Beach State Park. There were a few off-road vehicles parked on the beach there, one of them a small blue pickup truck. Sean’s thoughts, never far from Elijah, turned to him yet again. He wondered if Elijah’s parents had ever taken him and his siblings up the inside of the lighthouse- 217 steps, the odd number had stuck in his brain- as Sean’s own parents had done when he and Mack were kids. He could picture a tiny Elijah, wide-eyed with wonder, clutching onto the iron railing as he climbed the winding staircase at his father’s side.
He imagined how a grown-up Elijah would look right now, standing beside Sean on the jetty. The wind would ruffle that bright auburn hair and turn his pale cheeks pink with color so that his eyes would look even bluer than usual…
You’re acting exactly like some sentimental love struck fool in a sappy chick flick, Sean.
Love struck. Struck by love. I’ve been struck by love, Sean realized. I’m in love, in love with Elijah. I love Elijah. I love Elijah. If the rocks beneath his feet had started to tremble, Sean wouldn’t have been surprised, so cataclysmic was the shock that went through him as the truth, like falling dominoes, cascaded through his mind.
I love Elijah.
But people didn’t fall in love in just two days. Love at first sight was a myth perpetuated in fairy tales, in movies and in songs. No one honestly believed that it really happened that way, that two strangers locked eyes across a crowded room and instantly fell in love. Or that the gentle touch of a hand in the midst of a nightmare filled your heart with certainty that here was the one you’d been waiting for all your life without even knowing it.
And no one honestly believes that the Jersey Devil really exists, do they, but he does. Why can’t you have fallen in love?
A giddy sense of euphoria rose up inside him. He wanted to sprint along the jetty to the lighthouse, fly up all 217 steps of it without stopping, and then dance at the top like Rocky Balboa, pumping his fists and shouting Elijah’s name. His weariness had vanished; he was filled with limitless energy.
I love Elijah.
The path to his future suddenly seemed crystal clear. Elijah had told him it wasn’t too late for him to pursue his dream. Why couldn’t that pursuit encompass more than his dream of becoming a doctor? Why couldn’t a life with Elijah be part of that dream?
With a recklessness that was totally foreign to his nature, Sean bounded down from the jetty, leaping from rock to rock with a total disregard for his safety. He set out across the sand like a race walker, arms pumping, while he imagined the look on Elijah’s face when he answered the front door and saw Sean standing before him, while he imagined the smile that would light Elijah’s face and how he’d fling himself into Sean’s arms.
God, he could be there in a couple of hours… Sean broke into a jog.
But he hadn’t even made it halfway back when reality started to rear its ugly head. Gradually the euphoria faded as Sean slowed to a walk and then halted, bent at the waist, his hands on his thighs, his lungs seared by the cold air. It wasn’t a simple matter of rushing back to Elijah’s house and blurting out, ‘I love you’. He still had ties to Chris and to Clicktwice that he couldn’t walk away from even if he wanted to. He had no business saying anything to Elijah until he’d sorted out his own life first, and that could take weeks or possibly months. By then, would Elijah even remember his chance visitor? Would there be someone else in his life?
An unexpectedly vigorous wave rushed over his feet, soaking his shoes and socks in ice-cold water. He didn’t even notice.
“What do I do now?” Sean asked despairingly of the sky and the ocean and the birds, but they had no answer for him.
He was leg weary and sore at heart when he paused inside the back door to pull off his wet, sandy shoes and socks. I need to talk to someone, he admitted as he limped into the downstairs bathroom and found a towel to dry his numb feet. I need advice.
He rubbed his toes briskly with the towel, and they prickled painfully as the blood rushed back into them. It was sort of the way his heart felt right now after so many years lying dormant. A painful awakening, but he desperately didn’t want to lose what might be his only chance at love. He mentally sorted through the pitifully small list of people he could call. There was really only one choice.
“Sean? Jesus, bro, do you have any idea what time it is?”
“How about 5:30. I’m on the left coast, remember?”
“Oh god, Mack. I’m sorry.”
“’Salright. Give me a sec to get my shit together, okay? I didn’t get in until 3 a.m.”
A guilty Sean heard his brother crack a giant yawn, and then came a rustle of bedcovers and a muttered ‘Fuck’.
“I’m going to stagger into the kitchen to make some coffee,” Mack said, yawning again. “Now start talking; it must be important if Mr. Anal Retentive forgot the time difference.”
“Mack…” Sean hesitated, not sure where to start now that he had the opening. “I need some advice,” he said, gazing out the window at the massing gray storm clouds. It looked like it was going to start snowing any minute.
“Hang on. This is my brother Sean calling, isn’t it?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Sean asked defensively.
“Just that you’ve never asked for my advice before. You’ve always been too busy dispensing it.” There was a series of clinks and then the sound of running water as Mack presumably filled the coffee maker. “To what do I owe this unusual honor?”
“Mack, I…” Suddenly Sean felt himself on the verge of tears. Shit, shit, shit. “I…” His voice faltered.
“What? Sean, you’re starting to freak me out. Tell me what’s going on.”
Sean drew a deep breath and blurted out, “I met someone.”
“You mean as in you met someone met someone?” Mack sounded incredulous and wide-awake now.
“I think I need to sit down. Jesus. Who is she?”
“Not she, he.”
“Now I really do need to sit down.” There was a scraping sound as Mack pulled out a chair. “Sean, are you telling me you’re gay?”
Perhaps it was the logical question to have expected, but it still caught Sean unprepared. Truthfully, the issue of his sexuality didn’t seem all that important compared to the other complications he had to deal with. “I guess I am. But I’m not looking for advice about coming out, Mack.” Sean huffed a laugh. “Falling in love with another man was the easy part. It’s everything else: Chris, the business…”
“Falling in love? You mean you’re that serious?”
“Yes. Yes, I am. I’ve never been so serious.” Or so scared.
“So when did you meet this guy? And where?”
“Four days ago. My car broke down in the Pine Barrens on the way to the shore and he rescued me.”
“Four days ago? Sean…”
“I know it’s crazy, all right? You don’t have to tell me. If you want to know just how crazy, the truth is, I’m not even sure how he feels about me. We haven’t slept together, Mack. Fuck, we haven’t even kissed. When I left yesterday morning, I didn’t think I’d ever see him again, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think he’ll ever see me again either.”
“But now you’ve realized you want to see him again?” Mack asked softly, and he didn’t sound as if he thought Sean was crazy at all.
“So much it scares me,” Sean confessed.
“He must be a pretty damn special guy.”
“Elijah. His name is Elijah.” God, it felt so wonderful to say that name aloud to his brother. “And yeah, he’s special.” He huffed. “Way, way too good for me.”
“Hey, I seriously doubt that. You’re pretty special yourself, you know.
Sean was taken aback by his brother’s words. He’d felt increasingly estranged from Mack over the years, and sometimes wondered if his brother resented his success, if he’d moved to California just to get away from him. He hadn’t realized how deep his grief over the growing distance between them went until that moment.
“I mean it,” Mack went on quietly. “Give yourself some credit, Sean. Did it seem like Elijah was attracted to you?”
A reminiscent smile grew on Sean’s face as he recalled that moment by the cedar swamp. “Yeah, amazingly enough, it did.”
“There, you see? So what’s the problem?”
The smile vanished. “I can’t simply walk out on Chris and the business, Mack. It’s not fair to her and it’s not fair to Elijah.”
“A lot of people would walk, Sean. I see it happen all the time out here.”
“Is that what you think I should do?” Sean asked, torn between wanting to be told to do what he longed to do, and knowing that it would be utterly wrong.
“As a matter of fact, no, I don’t,” Mack replied decisively. “You’re right; it wouldn’t be fair to either of them. And it wouldn’t be you. I know you. You couldn’t live with yourself if you did that. No, if Elijah and a future with him are truly important to you, you have to do things right, get all your ducks in a row first.”
“But that could take so long, Mack. What if it’s too late by the time I’m free to go to him? What if-"
“What if a giant meteor hits the earth tomorrow and we’re all history? Sean, you didn’t use to be a ‘what if’ kind of guy. You used to see a problem and go right for the fix. What’s happened to you?” Mack sighed. “No, you don’t have to answer that. I know the answer. Chris happened to you, Chris and that goddamned company.”
“No, don’t interrupt. You called me at this ungodly hour to ask for advice, and I’m gonna have my say. I’ve kept my mouth shut for the past twelve years while I’ve watched the life being sucked out of you, and I can’t keep quiet about it anymore. Chris is one hell of a woman, Sean. She’s smart and she’s attractive, but the two of you are totally wrong for each other. Jesus Christ, Sean, do you know that in all the times I’ve visited you and Chris I’ve never seen you kiss each other? Hold hands even, for fuck’s sake?”
Sean was silent. What could he say? It was true. Everything Mack was saying was true.
“But it’s not only Chris,” Mack went on. “I don’t mean to dump all the blame on her. Anna and I are as much to blame, and don’t think I don’t know it. You gave up all your dreams to take care of us after Dad died, and we stood by and let you because it was easier that way.”
“That’s not true, Mack,” Sean argued. “It was my choice. No one twisted my arm. And you were just a kid. You can’t blame yourself.”
“Maybe, but I remember you used to talk all the time about becoming a pediatrician. It’s what you should have done, Sean, instead of getting so wrapped up in Clicktwice. I’ve always thought you’d make a great doctor.
“I didn’t think you remembered that.” Sean was deeply touched. “But if it makes you feel any better, Mack, that’s almost exactly what Elijah said.” You’d probably make a wonderful doctor, Sean. You have such a gentle way about you. “In fact, the last thing he said to me before I left was that I shouldn’t give up on the idea. And I’ve decided he’s right. I’ve already started looking into what courses I need to take so I can apply to medical school.”
“And you walked away from this guy? Are you fucking nuts? God, I can’t wait to meet him so I can shake his hand. Hell, forget the handshake, he’s gonna get a hug- a strictly platonic one, by the way,” Mack joked, but his voice sounded thick.
“Then you really don’t think I’m crazy.”
“I think my big brother’s finally come to his senses, and it’s the best news I’ve heard in years. Well,” he amended unexpectedly, “the second best news.”
“What do you mean, the second best?”
“You know that TV pilot I was in? The sitcom? I found out yesterday that it’s been picked up by NBC. Your baby bro is going to be a regular on prime time television. That’s why I was out so late- celebrating the good news. I was gonna call you later today to tell you.”
“Oh my god, Mack, that is such fantastic news. I’m so proud of you.” Tears were burning Sean’s eyes.
“Yeah, well, if it wasn’t for a certain older brother being willing to support me during the lean times, I’d never have stuck it out. And the best thing about getting this job is that I can finally start paying you back the money I owe you.”
“You don’t have to do that,” Sean protested. But the tears had started to overflow. For so long he’d feared that Mack would never stand on his own two feet or find a sense of self-worth, for so long he’d feared that his inability to say no when Mack needed a helping hand was the very thing holding his brother back.
“As a matter of fact, I do,” Mack said quietly. “Now that you’re going to become a doctor, you’ll need every dime you can get. Those medical schools cost a bloody fortune.”
Sean wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “I love you, Mack.”
“I love you, too.” And Sean had a feeling his brother was also wiping his eyes. “Jesus, just listen to the two of us. My brother calls and tells me he’s gay, and suddenly we both go all emo.”
Sean laughed. “Sorry. But maybe being a little emo isn’t such a bad thing, huh?”
“Maybe. Now get your ass in gear, Astin. What are you doing wasting time yakking on the phone when you’ve got so much work to do? Elijah’s waiting for you.”
Elijah’s waiting for you. He’d never heard four more beautiful words.
But as he disconnected the phone after saying goodbye, Sean saw the first flakes of snow slowly spiraling down out of the sky. It was okay, though, he thought as he set the phone back in the charger. He didn’t want to go rushing off. He wanted to sit and watch the snow fall and savor his conversation with his brother, the brother whom he feared he’d lost, but now felt closer to than ever.
Then he’d go make a cup of coffee and open that box of Tastykakes. It was about time he tried a Butterscotch Krimpet.
“Aren’t you hungry, Elijah?” Katie asked, sounding worried. “You haven’t finished your pie. You aren’t sickening for anything, are you?”
“Katie, stop fussing over the Woodjin,” scolded Bill. “He’s left two bites on his plate, that’s all.”
“That’s two more than he usually does,” retorted Katie.
Elijah listened to the familiar, comfortable bickering on either side of him, like volleys in a tennis match, and hid a smile. Some things never changed, he thought with fond exasperation.
“I’m not sickening for anything, Katie,” he protested mildly. “I was only waiting until there was more room in my stomach.” Considering the amount of food Katie had prepared for dinner that was certainly no lie. She always chided Elijah for being too thin and seemed to believe that it was possible to fatten him up with one gigantic meal.
But despite the corn and cheddar pudding, the cranberry bread, the scalloped potatoes, Brussels sprouts, green beans almondine and honeyed carrots he’d already eaten, not to mention the huckleberry pie smothered in heavy cream, Elijah picked up his fork and forced himself to finish the last two bites under Katie’s approving gaze. It wasn’t that the pie wasn’t delicious. Katie was justly famous in the pines for her baking. Truth was, he hadn’t felt much like eating since Sean left.
Getting out of the house to visit Bill and Katie had been the right thing to do, though, and the drive through the snow-covered woods under a starlit sky with a silver quarter moon rising had been peaceful and calming.
The snow that had started in the late morning had ended by sunset, the fast moving nor’easter tracking up into New England, and Elijah had had time to shovel the front steps and walk, and clean off his truck before it grew dark. He’d worried a little about the opossum that he’d set free early that morning, and wondered whether he shouldn’t have waited to release it, but it had wanted to go. Possums liked their freedom, like most wild creatures, and the burrow he’d found for it was deep and snug. If only Sean could have been with him to see it…
“Elijah? You’re sure you’re all right?”
Bill and Katie were both staring at him now, identical expressions of concern on their faces. This wouldn’t do. He was the Woodjin, after all, and he owed it to them to pull himself together and stop moping. Elijah pinned a bright smile on his face.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m fine, really. I was, um, thinking about Hannah and Jordan. I hope we won’t get any more snow in the next few days. They’re coming out for a visit this weekend if the weather cooperates.”
Bill rocked back in his chair and hooked his thumbs through his red and white striped suspenders. “That’s fine news,” he said, diverted as Elijah hoped he would be. “But what about Lawrence?”
“He’s out of town shooting a film.”
“Doing stunt work?” he asked eagerly.
Elijah nodded, suppressing a grin. Bill found Lawrence’s job as a stunt double totally fascinating, owned every movie he’d appeared in, and never tired of watching his scenes over and over.
But Katie looked suddenly troubled, turning a delicate rose-patterned china teacup around and around in her age-spotted hands. Whenever Elijah visited, she got out her best china and silver and linen and they ate in the dining room, as was befitting when entertaining the Woodjin. Nothing Elijah said could convince her that such a production was totally unnecessary, and he’d be just as happy to eat in the kitchen with them. But then, it had literally taken years to persuade her to call him Elijah. Bill still refused to do it, as did almost everyone else in the pines, save for Dr. Ian and a couple others.
“Hannah didn’t say anything about a visit when I spoke to her yesterday.” She hesitated and glanced apologetically at Elijah, her brown eyes filled with worry. “I’m afraid she was a little upset when I mentioned your young man, Elijah.”
Elijah couldn’t help it. He choked and felt his face burn with color. “He’s not my young man, Katie. Where did you get that idea?” He glanced at Bill, who was rather red in the face himself. What had Bill said to put such a notion in her head? What had that shrewd old piney read in Elijah’s face when he met him and Sean in the woods? No wonder Hannah had freaked, if that’s what Katie had implied to her.
“He’s not coming back, then?” Katie sounded exactly like Maggie, disbelieving and disappointed. It was possible that she was even more anxious for Elijah to have a ‘young man’ than Maggie was, and that was saying something.
Elijah let her down as gently as he could, but the words were achingly difficult to speak. “No, I’m afraid not. Sean has a- a girlfriend and his own life in the city.”
Katie’s face fell, and Elijah’s heart went out to her. A few years ago, she’d started trying to set Elijah up, inviting over every ‘eligible’ young woman in the area- up to and including the daughters of friend’s friends’ friends- until he finally worked up the nerve to tell her that he wasn’t interested in dating girls and it was a lost cause. She’d taken the news well, but since she hadn’t, thank goodness, tried setting him up with any friend’s friends’ friends sons, she clearly despaired of him ever finding someone on his own. She must have considered Sean his last best hope.
Like he’d told Sean, the pineys were often referred to as ignorant or backward by outsiders, but no group of people could have been more accepting when Elijah finally came out. They’d been just as accepting of Lawrence, a man of color, a Maori from New Zealand, when Hannah married him. Tolerance for those who were different was bred in the bone of a piney after hundreds of years of persecution and prejudice. Elijah often thought, when he read or listened to the news, filled with stories of mindless violence based on religion or race or sexual orientation, that the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from the folks in the pines.
“I’m sorry to hear he won’t be back, Woodjin,” said Bill, letting his chair legs down with a thump. “He was different from most of those city types who pass through in their fancy cars. I liked him.”
So did I. You have no idea how much.
Mercifully, they let the subject drop, and Elijah left a short time later. He thought Katie’s hug and Bill’s handshake were even tighter than usual as they said goodbye. These two wonderful friends had been almost like second parents to him, and he could never repay them for all their kindness. His blessing on them was as deep and sincere as he could make it, both as Woodjin and as Elijah.
With a final wave to the couple standing arm in arm on the front porch, silhouetted against the light from the open doorway, Elijah drove away, several Tupperware containers filled with leftovers resting on the front seat beside him. Katie never failed to make extra food for the Woodjin to take home.
He didn’t head straight home, however, but decided to make a brief detour through the woods first. The snow wasn’t deep enough to present any difficulties that the Toyota’s four-wheel drive couldn’t handle.
He left the truck idling while he got out and walked a short distance through the trees to a clearing. It looked like any one of a dozen such places scattered through the pines, but to Elijah it wasn’t like any other, for it was here that he’d met Sean.
Elijah stood for some time staring at the pristine silver-white blanket of snow that covered the exact spot where Sean, crouching on hands and knees, dazed and terrified, had raised his head and seen the white stag for the first time. He would never forget how the fear in Sean’s eyes had turned to wonder at the sight, even with the Devil only a few yards behind him.
When the cold grew too much to bear, Elijah returned to the truck and drove home through the silent woods, holding the memory close to his heart.
Sean went to bed that night feeling the way he used to as a kid: eager for the next day to arrive and filled with anticipation for what it might bring. He had a goal now, and a renewed sense of purpose, and he was ready for that long overdue talk with Chris about their relationship and his future with Clicktwice.
The thought of driving back to the city in the morning didn’t fill him with dread, as it would have only yesterday. Oh, it wouldn’t be an easy conversation- there was an understatement- and hurting Chris was the last thing he wanted to do, but he hoped that in the long run she would understand that it was better for her as well as Sean not to be locked in a loveless relationship. And maybe eventually she’d discover an Elijah of her own. Sean chuckled quietly as the impossibility of that ever happening occurred to him. There was after all only one Elijah, and Sean wasn’t about to share him with anyone.
Elijah… Sean stared dreamily at the ceiling while he pictured Elijah at home. What was he doing now? Where was he? In the barn feeding the squirrels? Curled up on the rug in the family room listening to music? Getting ready for bed? Sean transferred his gaze to the drawing of the white stag, and wondered if Elijah had kept it in his bedroom. Sean hadn’t gotten so much as a glimpse of that room while he was there, but he expected that would change when he returned. He certainly intended it to.
He smiled, and reached out to turn off the lamp on the nightstand. He truly trusted now that one day, not too far distant, he would return to Elijah, and that there would be a welcome for him when he did. “Thank you, Mack,” he whispered into the dark, thinking how much he owed his brother.
When Sean fell asleep, he was still smiling.
When the call came, Elijah was already awake, lying on his back in bed, staring up at the ceiling. He was thinking about a man whose changeable eyes held the colors of the pines that he loved so dearly: the soft green of fern fronds, the tea-brown of quiet streams, the deep gold of asphodel.
At his side Maggie was stretched out, and Elijah was absently stroking her orange and black fur, her rasping purr vibrating beneath his fingers. Rocky was sound asleep in the nesting box Elijah had made for him above the headboard, where he could hoard his store of nuts and seeds, collected against the harsh winters he would never experience.
The call was, as always, abrupt and insistent, and arrived in a swift succession of mental images that told him without words that there was someone in great danger.
Elijah sat up and threw back the bedcovers. Maggie raised her head and gave an inquiring meow. “Yes, I’ve been called,” he said. “I’ve got to go.”
Maggie padded silently beside him as he made his way quickly through the still house to the kitchen. At the door to the mudroom, she meowed again, and Elijah stopped and sighed. “No, it’s not him,” he said sadly. “He’s not coming back. You’ve got to stop asking me that, Maggie.”
Mrowr. Maggie sounded anxious.
“I’ll be careful,” Elijah promised, and a faint smile touched his lips. “You’re such a mother hen, Maggie.” He turned the doorknob. “Don’t wait up for me,” he added, knowing that she would anyway.
The mudroom was cold, and Elijah shivered a little as he pulled off his boxers and tee shirt and hung them on a hook. Then he opened the back door and, barefoot and naked, walked out into the snow-covered moonlit yard.
Sean awoke with a start, as excruciating pain lanced through his shoulder and ran down his arm to his fingertips. Oh my god, he thought in a panic, I’m having a heart attack. He sat up, gasping, and hoped he could make it to the phone to call 911. God, where was the nearest hospital? He had no idea. Off the island somewhere… how long would it take an ambulance to arrive?
But then gradually, as panic subsided, he realized that he couldn’t possibly be having a heart attack. The pain was in his right shoulder and arm, not in the left, as it surely would be if he were having a heart attack, wouldn’t it? But more than that, Sean was realizing that the pain wasn’t really pain at all. It was different, more like the ghost of remembered pain, or… as if he was experiencing someone else’s pain?
Tentatively, he moved his right arm; both it and his shoulder felt perfectly normal. The phantom pain, whatever it was, had vanished, but in its place, a deep sense of foreboding had arisen.
What on earth was going on?
The answer arrived in the form of an image that flashed into his mind: an image of Elijah, his face pale and contorted with pain. And at that moment Sean knew with absolute, unshakeable conviction that the pain he’d experienced was Elijah’s pain, and that Elijah was hurt and in trouble.
Sean was on his feet and turning on the bedside lamp even as the knowledge came to him. Squinting against the sudden glare, he snatched up his watch. 1:13 a.m.
Sean ran into the master bedroom and began yanking open dresser drawers, grabbing the first clothes that came to hand and pulling them on. The feeling of urgency, of foreboding, continued to grow, and he didn’t stop to question what he was doing or why. He tugged on socks and shoved his feet into his still slightly damp running shoes, and bolted for the kitchen without bothering to lace them.
Hurry, hurry, a small voice inside his brain suddenly spoke up. Hurry, hurry.
He grabbed his car keys and wallet off the kitchen counter and the precious directions from the front of the refrigerator where he’d secured them with a lighthouse magnet from his study. His jacket and scarf were still draped over the back of a chair in the living room. He put them on, and then he was bounding down the back stairs and into the garage and almost diving into the front seat of the Beemer. He hit the garage door opener and cursed as he tried unsuccessfully to fit the key in the ignition. His fingers were shaking so badly, it took three attempts before he succeeded.
He started the engine, put the car in reverse and hit the gas. The tires squealed as he roared out of the garage like Mario Andretti, and then the car fishtailed as it slid on the snow. Oh shit. Gritting his teeth, Sean shifted into drive and headed as fast as he dared down the lane, plowing through several inches of powdery snow that sprayed out from under the tires as if he was driving through water.
He didn’t even realize that he’d left without closing the back door or the garage, much less setting the security system.
When he reached the boulevard and turned south, heading toward the causeway to the mainland, Sean was relieved to see that the road had been plowed, although there were icy patches in evidence. Nevertheless, he exceeded the speed limit by a good 25 mph as he flew through the innumerable traffic lights that were thankfully turned to blinking yellow in the off-season. Please god, he sent up a silent prayer, please don’t let me get stopped by a cop.
His luck held, however, even when he ran two red lights on the street leading to the causeway. But once off the island and heading west on Route 72, he didn’t dare to run lights or speed, for there were other cars around even at this hour; it was a heavily populated area. As Sean waited anxiously at a red light, he worried at his lip so hard he tasted blood, and his legs jiggled and his fingers beat a nervous tattoo on the steering wheel. And all the while, the insistent little voice in his head was saying, hurry, hurry and sounding more and more urgent. The light turned green and he stomped on the gas pedal. The BMW shot away like a jackrabbit, burning rubber.
Once he was clear of traffic lights and heading into the pines, Sean cast caution to the wind and floored the accelerator pedal. He didn’t give a shit if fifty cop cars started chasing him. But fast as he was going, and it was way, way faster than he’d ever driven before in his life, the miles seemed to crawl by. When he slowed for the first turn off the highway, however, and glanced at the dashboard clock, he realized that he’d probably cut a good 20 minutes from the trip by driving like a total lunatic. It was worth every petrifying, nerve-wracking moment.
He’d read through Elijah’s directions several times that afternoon, blissfully looking forward to the day when he’d be free to use them again. Now he blessed the coincidence- or was it coincidence?- that had led him to do so, for the route was plain in his mind, and he didn’t have to pull out the paper crammed in his coat pocket and try to read it and steer at the same time. In fact, he was in such a hyper-aware state that he could almost visualize the route, not as a trail of bread crumbs, but as if it was displayed on the windshield in glowing neon colors.
But the closer he got to Elijah’s house, the worse the driving conditions became, and he was forced, reluctantly, to slow down. The snowplows hadn’t passed through here yet- if they ever did- and the snow had been compacted by traffic until it held an icy gleam in the Beemer’s headlights. Sean’s fear of losing control of the car and running off the road fought with the urgent little voice saying, hurry, hurry. Several times the car skidded, and Sean’s heart leapt into his throat as he wrestled with the steering wheel and straightened it out. Why in god’s name hadn’t he done like everyone else he knew and bought one of those fucking giant Hummers with four-wheel drive?
When he finally arrived at the driveway to Elijah’s house, Sean was sweating profusely, and his hands were shaking and leaving damp patches on the leather-covered steering wheel. He hadn’t expected the long, twisting drive to be plowed, not if the roads weren’t, but the high beams illuminated a set of tire tracks in the snow. Thank god Elijah, or someone at least, had driven along it, clearing a path. He steered the car carefully so that he was following in the tracks, and crept up the drive.
On either side, the pitch pines loomed, dark and menacing, and Sean flashed back to the night he’d encountered the Jersey Devil. He tried to banish the memory of what the Devil had done to the Beemer from his mind. Just keep going, he thought, clutching the steering wheel so tightly that his hands ached, whatever you do, don’t stop. Don’t think about what might be in the woods. Or what it might have done to Elijah…
Oh god. What about these tire tracks, he suddenly thought. What if they didn’t belong to Elijah’s truck, but the car of some crazed serial killer… Stop it, stop it. But Sean’s brain, as if determined to torment him, kept right on. What if Elijah wasn’t home? What if the tire tracks belonged to the Toyota and he’d had an accident, and was lying in a hospital somewhere dying and… Stop it, stop it.
He drove around the final curve in the driveway holding his breath, and then exhaled with relief. There parked in front of the cabin was Elijah’s blue pickup truck. There was no other car in sight. Sean pulled up next to the truck, parked, and got out on legs that felt rubbery. The cold was wicked, and he shivered as the sweat on his exposed skin cooled abruptly.
The brief moment of relief vanished and foreboding crept over him again as he navigated the narrow shoveled path to the front porch and climbed the steps. He didn’t knock or ring the doorbell. Instead, he reached for the doorknob; the brass burned with cold beneath his fingers, but it turned easily. Sean pushed open the front door and stepped inside, wondering what sight might greet him.
But the house was silent and dark, exactly the way one would expect a house to be at such an hour. Yet… there was something unnatural about the stillness. Sean flashed back again to the night of his encounter with the Devil, and the ominous quiet of the pines moments before he heard that bloodcurdling shriek. Could the Devil get inside someone’s house, he wondered, and wished that he’d never in his life watched a single slasher movie, for the mental images conjured up made bile rise to his throat. He forced it back down.
He stood in the hallway, uncertain what to do, and then called out softly, “Elijah?” There was no reply. The only sounds were the faint ticking of a clock, and the thrumming of Sean’s heart. He walked forward a few steps, then stopped again to listen and once again called, “Elijah?”
He caught a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye, and whirled in its direction, raising his hands like a boxer ready to deflect a punch. A piercing yowl rent the quietness like a jagged knife, and Sean almost had a heart attack for real. Then he recognized the source of the godawful noise. “Maggie. Jesus. You scared the shit out of me.” Sean set a hand over his racing heart and took several deep breathes while he struggled to regain his shaky composure.
Maggie padded up to him, but she didn’t wind through his legs or attempt to greet him. Her black and rust fur was standing on end as if she’d been shocked, and her long expressive tail was flicking back and forth. She let out another ear-splitting yowl, the sound completely unlike any he’d heard her make, and his fear escalated even higher. There was only one thing that could affect her so strongly, he thought, and that was if something had happened to Elijah.
Slowly, dread weighting every step, Sean ventured down the hallway and into the family room. There was no sign of Elijah there. He left the family room, and proceeded through the rest of the house, turning on lights as he went. He left no room, no closet, unopened. He called Elijah’s name over and over. He discovered Fred in the bathroom, shut up tightly inside his shell, as if he’d seen something so awful he was afraid to peer out. Could it have been Elijah, wounded and bleeding from cuts inflicted by razor-sharp claws? The idea didn’t even seem over-the-top. He’d seen the Jersey Devil with his own eyes.
Sean continued his methodical search, fearing at every turn what he might discover. Maggie remained riveted to his side, keeping up an almost continuous stream of mews and yowls. If she was trying to tell Sean something, he didn’t know what it was. Unlike Elijah, he couldn’t talk to animals, and he could only do his pathetic best to find the young man he loved.
When he reached Elijah’s bedroom, he was struck by the terrible irony of how, only a few hours ago, he’d been looking forward so much to this moment. But he’d never imagined for a second that he would enter the room with dread in his heart. Yet even in his current state of anxiety, he couldn’t help but notice that in this room, at least, Elijah’s tidiness was not in evidence. There were piles of discarded clothes, and stacks of books, magazines and CDs on the floor, and the drawers of his dresser were half open and spilling out socks and tee shirts.
Elijah’s oak four-poster bed was unmade, the sheets and comforter carelessly thrown back as if he’d got up in a hurry. Above the headboard a curious looking wooden box was hanging; it resembled a birdhouse, but with a larger opening cut in the front. Even as Sean looked at it with puzzlement, a familiar beady-eyed gray face appeared, chattered something indecipherable and highly agitated, and withdrew again. It was Rocky. All Elijah’s beloved house animals were present and accounted for now, but Elijah himself was nowhere in sight.
He headed to the kitchen last of all, and Maggie sprinted ahead of him to stand at the mudroom door. She batted at it repeatedly with one paw, yowling piteously, and Sean went to her. “Is Elijah out in the barn?” he asked as he opened the door. But Maggie streaked through the opening, across the runner and out through the cat flap, leaving Sean alone. He missed her small presence ridiculously. The oppressive silence and sense of foreboding hung over him like a pall.
He flipped on the light switch beside the door, and entered the mudroom, fully intending to go straight out into the yard and to the barn, certain now that that must be where Elijah was. But he stopped in confusion at the sight of Elijah’s tan work boots on the floor, and his barn jacket hanging on its accustomed hook, the gray hat sticking up out of a pocket. Had Elijah been in such a rush he’d forgotten to put on his jacket and boots? And then Sean noticed something even odder: blue plaid boxers and a white tee shirt hanging on the hook closest to the back door.
What the fuck? If he didn’t know better, he’d believe that Elijah had actually undressed before going outside. But that was ridiculous. It must be barely 20 degrees out. Even more confused, Sean looked around him for any further clues to this apparent riddle, but found none. He did notice a large mag flashlight standing on end on a utility shelf. Praying that it would work better than the one in his car had when he needed it, he picked it up and tried it. A bright flood of light poured out, and he breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t even want to cross the yard to the barn without a light.
Hefting the heavy flashlight, thinking that it could also be a weapon if necessary, he moved toward the door, but then stopped, turned, and took down the blaze orange jacket that had belonged to Elijah’s father. He shrugged into it, feeling braver somehow with it on, and went outside.
In the glow of the flashlight, he noticed the footprints immediately. Bare footprints, that traveled in a straight line- not toward the barn, but diagonally toward the woods. An image of Elijah, terrified and helpless with a gun held to his head, being forcibly marched into the woods to be tortured or murdered rose up before him… But he immediately realized that such a scenario simply couldn’t be, not unless Elijah’s captor was invisible or walked on air. There was only one set of footprints heading in that direction.
No, it appeared that Elijah had gone alone, barefoot and possibly naked, into the pines on a bitter cold January night… Why?
Sean swept the flashlight over the snow-covered yard. There was a confusion of booted footprints crisscrossing the space between the barn and the house, most likely from Elijah making his trips back and forth to the barn to take care of the animals, and then there was that lone set of bare footprints leading toward the woods.
He raised the flashlight and it caught twin points of green glowing about twenty yards away. It was Maggie, her amber eyes reflecting eerily in the light, and she was watching Sean intently: watching him, and also waiting for him. Maggie knew something; that much was clear. He should trust her instincts and quit fumbling along on his own. He went to join her, walking alongside Elijah’s small footprints, unable somehow to bear the idea of stepping on them.
God, his feet must be freezing; he’ll end up with frostbite, Sean thought worriedly, and wondered what in God’s name could have driven Elijah to do something so reckless.
Suddenly he stopped dead, dumbfounded. As he’d walked, he’d let the flashlight play over every footprint, perfectly and delicately outlined in the snow, right down to the shape of each individual toe. But now it was illuminating a completely different shape of print, one that was smaller, rounder… and cloven. Not human.
Somehow, between one step and the next, the footprints had turned into hoof prints.
Sean stared down in disbelief. The prints looked exactly like the spoor of a deer or… a stag? Oh my god, he thought. Did Elijah come out here to meet the white stag?
And then the truth hit him with stunning force: there was only one set of hoof prints in the snow, the set leading into the pines. There could be only one possible answer.
Elijah hadn’t met the white stag, he was the white stag.
The veil that had been clouding his memory of that night was ripped away. Sean remembered at last what it was that had lurked on the edges of his mind, elusive as quicksilver. As he’d spiraled down into darkness, losing consciousness, the stag had turned his majestic head to look at him, and his eyes in the light from the cabin windows had been blue…
Sean fell to his knees in the snow, heedless of the cold wet soaking his jeans, the flashlight almost falling from his nerveless fingers, light swinging crazily around him. “Oh my god. Oh my god,” he said aloud. He covered his face with his trembling hands as the puzzle pieces fell neatly into place, and he wondered how he could possibly have failed to see the truth. Elijah was the white stag, and the white stag was Elijah, the Woodjin, the guide and guardian of the pines.
How could I have been so blind?
An imperative meow roused Sean from his stupor and he looked up. Maggie was staring at him, irritably shaking the snow from one dainty orange paw. The sense of urgency returned in a rush, and with it the reason he was here: it wasn’t to discover the truth of Elijah’s identity, but to rescue him from whatever danger he was in- if he could. Sean swallowed hard as he realized exactly what he was going to have to do: walk willingly back into the forest, even knowing what might lie in wait. His heart almost failed him as recalled the Devil’s pitiless red eyes and terrible scream of rage as it chased him through the woods.
But Elijah, the White Stag, needed him. Sean rose steadily to his feet, his face set and the flashlight held in a firm grip. “I’m coming,” he said quietly, and with unfaltering steps followed Maggie into the shadows that awaited them.