The Woodjin: Crystal by Lbilover

An inset fic set immediately after Chapter 10 of the main story. Refers to events that occurred at the beginning of Chapter 7.


Elijah was cutting slices of cranberry bread with one-handed awkwardness when he sensed a car crossing the perimeter of the ward set around the property. For an instant, hope flared up inside him, irrational if irresistible, but it died as quickly as it had arisen. It couldn’t be Sean. He’d spoken to him late last night, and he knew that right now Sean was having a preliminary meeting with the law firm that would be representing him during his separation from Chris.


He set the bread knife down on the apple-shaped cutting board, and focused his mind. Not Hannah either, he thought, for he couldn’t sense Jordan’s presence. That was a relief. His sister hadn’t wanted to leave Elijah to fend for himself while his arm was still confined to a sling, but Lawrence was returning home today from Vancouver, where he’d been filming a movie, and he would be anxious to see his wife and child.


No, it was more likely Bill or Katie, or any one of a dozen other Pineys stopping by to check on him. Elijah wondered if it was the height of ingratitude to want to be left alone; after all, you didn’t hover over a wild animal recuperating from an injury, did you? Perhaps it was a manifestation of his stag nature that made him crave space and solitude to grieve the absence of his mate. Or perhaps it was the sacred trust that he held as Woodjin, he thought, looking at the silver ring he wore. How could the people here trust him to protect them if they perceived him as weak?


He padded barefoot to the front door with Maggie at his side, and looked out the narrow window to its right. The car had just come into view, and it wasn’t a car he recognized. No one he knew owned a white Mustang. In the pines, most people opted for four-wheel drive vehicles. As the car pulled slowly up to the house, he could make out the driver: a young woman with pale blonde hair, who was leaning forward slightly and had a white-knuckled hold of the steering wheel precisely at the ten and the two. She cautiously parked the car and got out, and Elijah saw that she was very young, no more than a teenager. The death grip on the wheel was explained; she had probably only recently gotten her driver’s license.


She was tall, slim and very pretty. She was also somehow familiar, although Elijah could have sworn he had never seen her before. Her long legs were encased in tight-fitting jeans tucked into fleece-lined boots, and under her unzipped sky-blue ski parka she was wearing a fuzzy pink mohair sweater.


It was the sweater that jolted his memory, and with an almost electric sense of shock, Elijah suddenly realized who she was: the girl out at the Quaker Bridge the night he was shot. Her shrill cry of “Please don’t shoot him, please” echoed in his mind, and he could see her lunging desperately for the gun that was being aimed at him. After that, his memory was blurred from the excruciating pain that had exploded through him when the bullet struck his shoulder, but Elijah seemed to recall that she’d run after him as he stumbled for the safety of the trees.


What was she doing here, he wondered, and how had she found him?


He opened the front door as she climbed the steps; the cold rushed in and over his bare feet like the ghost of a mouse. “I heard you pull up,” Elijah said, when her brown eyes widened a little in surprise to see him there. “What can I do for you?”


Up close and in daylight, she appeared almost heartbreakingly young. Her features were smooth and still held traces of the roundness of childhood. But her eyes weren’t a child’s eyes. They held a haunted, troubled look, and it didn’t take any special intuitive powers to guess that the events of the other night must have shaken her badly.


“I- I hope you don’t mind me barging in on you like this, but I was hoping you might be able to help me,” she said, coming to a halt just outside the door. Her voice was breathy and slightly high-pitched, and she stood a good four inches taller than Elijah. She bit her lip and looked embarrassed. “I’m sorry. I should introduce myself. I’m Crystal Barnikow.” She held out a hand with long, tapered fingers whose nails were painted the same pink as her sweater. “You’re Elijah, right?”


“That’s right. Elijah Wood.” Who had told her his name, and why? “I’m pleased to meet you, Crystal.” Elijah took her hand in his left, shook it briefly and then held the door open wider. “Why don’t you step inside? It’s too cold to stand out here talking.”


“Thanks. That’s really nice of you,” Crystal said a little shyly, and moved past him into the foyer. “I promise not to take up a lot of your time.”


“Don’t worry about it,” Elijah assured her as he closed the door. She hadn’t even seemed to notice that he wasn’t using his right hand. But then, she was clearly preoccupied with whatever had brought her here to see him.


“What a beautiful cat,” Crystal remarked admiringly, diverted by the sight of the calico cat sitting at Elijah’s feet.


“Her name’s Maggie.”


“Hiya, Maggie,” she said, crouching down, and smiled when Maggie came up to her and started purring. “I love animals,” Crystal confided, as she stroked the cat’s gleaming rust-and-black fur. She glanced up at him. “I work part time at a vet’s office in Cherry Hill, just cleaning out cages and stuff, but I’m gonna go to school next year so I can become a real vet tech.”


“That’s wonderful,” Elijah said sincerely. She seemed like a very sweet person, he thought, and Maggie liked her, which counted a lot with him.


“Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it, and…” She broke off and bit her lip again, and then got hastily to her feet. “Gosh, I’m sorry. I’m talking too much. My mom’s always getting on my case about it. I guess I’m a little nervous.”


“You don’t have to be nervous, Crystal.” Elijah gave her an encouraging smile. “Just tell me why you’re here and how I can help you.”


“I’ve been driving around all morning, hoping to find someone I could talk to about an animal that’s been hurt,” Crystal began. “I stopped at the gas station in Chatsworth and the guy there said I should go see you, because you’re a wildlife rehabilitator. He gave me the directions to your house.”


That would’ve been Joe Nichols, and it wasn’t the first time he’d sent someone with an injured wild animal to Elijah. The tension inside him eased- there was no great mystery to Crystal’s arrival, after all- but the irony of the situation certainly didn’t escape him.


“So you need me to look at this animal?” he asked, and his conscience smote him at the deception he had to practice.


“Not exactly.” Crystal nervously fidgeted with the fringe of the white wool scarf she wore around her neck. “I don’t actually have him, I just… know about him. He’s a deer, and I thought that if anyone had seen him, they might have told you, ‘cause he’s kind of unusual.”


“Unusual in what way?” Elijah was more than curious to hear her impression of the white stag. It would tell him a lot about Crystal Barnikow.


Crystal didn’t answer straightaway. Her head was bowed, and she continued to finger the fringe of her scarf, as if lost in thought. “He’s, like, a Disney character or something,” she said at last. “He’s bigger than a real deer, and his coat is white. Really white, I mean, like snow. Does that sound too crazy?”


“No. White deer are uncommon, but not unheard of,” said Elijah. He was fighting the smile tugging at his lips from her description of him. A Disney character? He could just imagine what Sean’s reaction to that would be. “I wish I could help you, Crystal, but I’m afraid I haven’t heard anything about a white deer being injured. Have you contacted the state police? Often that’s the first place people will try if they have an injured animal to report.”


To Elijah’s bewilderment, the suggestion seemed to terrify her. Her face grew pale and strained. “I can’t call the police,” Crystal said in a scared whisper. “He told me that if I went to the police, he’d make me regret the day I was ever born.“


“Who is ‘he’?” Elijah asked quietly.


“The guy I was with the other night. The night the deer was…” Her voice wobbled, and suddenly she burst into tears. “It’s my fault,” Crystal sobbed, putting her hands over her face, “all my fault. He’s dead, and it’s because of me.”


Elijah put his arm around the weeping girl. Her distress was so great that he was tempted to blurt out the truth, but instead he said, “I think you better tell me what this is all about. But I’m gonna make you a dish of tea first. Come on.”


He led Crystal down to the kitchen, helped her off with her coat and seated her at the table. The kettle was still warm from earlier, and soon its cheerful whistle could be heard. Elijah made a pot of English breakfast tea, and put the uneven slices of cranberry bread on a plate. One-handed, it took several trips to carry everything to the table, but Crystal was too mired in her misery to notice.


He poured her tea and set the mug in front of her, remembering the morning Sean had sat in the same chair, when Elijah had made him pancakes. A fierce pang of longing for Sean shafted through him. He battled it back with difficulty, and sat down in the chair beside Crystal.


“Drink your tea,” Elijah instructed. Obediently, Crystal raised the mug to her lips and sipped. “Now why don’t you tell me what happened the other night,” he gently urged.


“I met this guy at a party in Philly,” she said, “and he asked me out on a date. He was really cute, kinda like this actor I’m crazy about. I knew I shouldn’t go out with him, ‘cause I’m only seventeen and he’s a lot older than me, but I get so tired of my parents treating me like a child all the time, you know? So I said yes. God, I was so stupid.”


Elijah said nothing, only looked his sympathy, although truthfully he had never shared her experience of being treated like a child. By the time he was seventeen, he was the Woodjin, and the object of reverence to people three times his age. But he could certainly understand the feeling of wanting to rebel, to break free of the constraints that hedged you around.


“Anyway, I lied and told my parents I was going out with my girlfriend Stacy, but instead I went out to dinner with him. Afterward he said we should take a ride into the Pine Barrens. It sounded kind of exciting at first, but it was so dark in the woods, you know? I couldn’t stop thinking about the Jersey Devil. I mean, I know he doesn’t really exist, but still… it was creepy. And…” Crystal colored, and looked down at her mug, “he was getting real grabby, but when I asked him to leave me alone, he got angry with me.” She raised her eyes. They held a painful honesty as they met his. “I let him believe I was older and more experienced than I really am. It was my own fault.”


“No matter what, he should have respected your wishes and not been mad at you,” Elijah said in a gentle voice, while inside he felt an unaccustomed anger rising. But anger never solved anything, and would make him no better than the man who had shot him, so he released it, as if it were a fledgeling bird leaving the nest for the first time.


“Thank you,” Crystal whispered. “You’re being so nice to me. Nicer than I deserve, especially when you know what I did. You see, we were driving toward the river—he told me there was a pretty spot there where we could park—when a deer suddenly appeared in the road in front of us. A white deer. I’d never seen anything so beautiful before in my life, you know?” she added, a far-off look in her eyes now, and Elijah could almost hear Sean’s voice: 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.


And then the far-off look faded into sadness. “But he called the deer vermin and tried to get him to move. When the deer just stood there, he reached under the car seat and… and pulled out a gun,” she said, her voice now husky with tears. “He said he was going to shoot the deer because he wouldn’t get out of the road. I tried to stop him, but when I grabbed for the gun, it went off and… and… Oh god, there was so much blood.” Tears were coursing down her cheeks, and she stared down at her palms as if expecting, like Lady Macbeth, to find them covered in that blood. “And then I saw the bridge had collapsed and I realized that the deer had kept us from driving into the river. He saved my life, Elijah, and I- I killed him.”


“Crystal, you didn’t kill him, I know you didn’t,” Elijah spoke with unthinking vehemence.


Too much vehemence, he realized too late, for Crystal was looking at him strangely now through her tear-swollen eyes. “What are you, like, a psychic or something?” she asked, but with genuine curiosity, not sarcasm, and then, as if only just noticing it, her gaze went to the sling that confined his right arm.


Elijah could see the very instant when the truth, untenable though it might seem, hit her. Her face went slack with shock, and her eyes grew larger than a newborn owl’s.


“It was you,” she breathed in awe-struck tones, and raised her eyes to his. She stared at him for a long moment, and then said again: “It was you, wasn’t it? Your eyes… they’re the same.”


And just like that, Elijah was faced with a choice.


He could take Crystal’s hand, or lay his own on her arm. All he needed was that simple contact, and he could begin the silent, measured words of the incantation that would allow him to draw a veil across her memory, and hide the truth of his identity from her forever. He could then reassure her that he would ask around and let her know if he heard anything about the deer. Tell her not to be so hard on herself, that there was no reason to assume the deer had died. Cite examples of wild animals he’d cared for who had made miraculous recoveries.


Crystal would leave here never knowing that the white deer and Elijah were one and the same. But for the rest of her life, despite his assurances, she would probably believe that she had been responsible for the deer’s death, that her life had been saved at its expense. From time to time, a faint echo of the truth might sound in her mind, but as soon as she tried to catch that echo and understand it, it would vanish like a dream at waking.


It was the logical choice, the choice that everyone who loved him—Sean, Hannah, Dr. Ian, Katie—would urge him to make in order to protect himself from discovery.


But there was a second choice, if he was willing to listen to the instincts that told him Crystal could be trusted with the truth.


“Yes,” Elijah said steadily, “it was me.”


For a moment the ghost of Matt reappeared, and Elijah wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. Then Crystal impulsively reached out and put her arms around him.


“Oh thank god,” she breathed shakily into his shoulder, “thank god. I thought I’d killed you.”


Over her shining blonde head, Elijah met Maggie’s enormous amber eyes where the cat sat in the chair opposite him. They held a definite look of approval. Maggie, at least, agreed with his decision. Good thing, too, he thought wryly. He was going to need someone in his camp when Sean found out.



***


“So what did she do then?” Sean was practically shouting. “Get on her cell phone and call all her friends to tell them about you? Or did she go straight to the local paper first?”


“Neither. She finished her tea, and then we went out to the barn and she helped me change the fox’s bandage,” Elijah calmly replied. “And I gave her Miranda’s phone number.”


“Miranda? Who the hell is she?”


“She runs the wildlife refuge in Medford. I thought Crystal might like to talk to her about volunteering there. It would be great experience for her.”


“Elijah…” There was a loud exhale on the other end of the line, and Elijah could picture Sean running his hand through his hair as he paced back and forth.


“Sean, please trust me, okay? Crystal isn’t going to say anything. She promised.”


“And do you really think you can trust her promise, Elijah?” Sean demanded. “A teenager who behaved as irresponsibly as she did? Who lied to her parents?”


“I do. Crystal knows she behaved irresponsibly. She entirely blames herself for what happened. I think she learned a valuable lesson, Sean, and she’ll be a wiser and better person for it. Besides, Maggie agrees with me, and after all, you’re the one who told me I should listen to her.”


There was a silence, and Elijah knew Sean was wavering, torn between his understandable fear for Elijah’s safety and his desire to support Elijah’s decision and have faith in his judgment.


“Didn’t I predict that worrying about you would become a full-time occupation?” Sean said at last.


Elijah smiled into the phone, relieved. If Sean was joking, then everything was all right. “You did, but Crystal is gonna come out here this weekend for a visit, and I’ll remind her of her promise, just to make you happy.”


“Coming out there for a visit? Is this the point at which I have to start feeling jealous, Elijah?” Sean asked lightly.


“Crystal towers over me, Sean. We’d look ridiculous together.”


“I’m relieved to hear it.”


“You know, I’m thinking about encouraging Crystal to go to vet school,” Elijah went on brightly. “I’m sure she could do it—she told me she’s a straight ‘A’ student. We could use a good vet in the pines, especially one who specializes in exotic animals, don’t you think? It’s really expensive, though, so I thought maybe we could offer to help her with her tuition.” There was a sort of muffled choking sound on the other end. “Sean?”


“Whatever you say, Elijah,” gasped Sean.


He was laughing.


~end~