The Woodjin: The Watch Tower by Lbilover

I've been to the fire watch tower and climbed it, although not at night. It's not for the faint of heart! Photo at the bottom taken by me.


Sean shouldered past a gnarly pine branch partially blocking his way, and stared with wry amusement at the Woodjin’s slender back a few feet in front of him. He might be developing into a pretty proficient hiker for a city boy, but the loose sandy soil was tough on calf and thigh muscles, and he could feel the pull of fatigue, while Elijah strode effortlessly along the narrow deer trail with unflagging, sure-footed grace.


They’d left the cabin shortly after ten o’clock, their ultimate destination a secret since Elijah, as usual, wanted it to be a surprise; all Sean knew was that a hike through the woods on a frigid December night was one of the more unusual ways of ringing in the New Year that he could think of - and infinitely preferable in every conceivable way to where he’d been and what he’d been doing a year ago this night.


Despite the bitter cold that left every breath a dense white cloud lingering on the air, Elijah was moving at such a brisk pace that Sean was almost too warm under the blaze orange down jacket that covered thermal underwear, a turtleneck, a BMC sweatshirt and a fleece vest. But when they finally got where they were going, he knew he’d be glad of the numerous layers, not to mention the forest-green Polartec fleece headband, scarf, and gloves that Santa (aka Elijah) had left for him under the Christmas tree, his now nicely broken-in Thinsulate-lined L.L. Bean hiking boots, and the pair of wool Hudson Bay blankets currently folded and slung over Elijah’s right shoulder.


Then there was the champagne in the portable wine cooler stored in his backpack that he was looking forward to opening and using to warm his insides: a very expensive Taittinger - his personal favorite among champagnes and one of his few real indulgences. It was admittedly an extremely odd match for the Butterscotch Krimpets that Elijah had packed, but the younger man had insisted that the New Year had to start with Tastykakes. Taittinger and Tastykakes. It seemed somehow symbolic of him and Elijah, and how two people from entirely different worlds could find each other, against all odds, and become one.


Sean’s sleeve brushed against the butt end of the mag as he swung his arm with each stride. The flashlight was resting unused in his pocket; with a three-quarter moon shining bright in a cloudless sky and the Woodjin to guide him along the twisting, narrow sand trails through the pines, it was less a necessity than a talisman against the memory of pitiless burning red eyes and vast black wings that blocked out the stars. Just as the Woodjin-oriented first-aid kit that Ian had helped him put together and that took up the bulk of the space in his backpack would also, Sean fervently hoped, prove an unnecessary encumbrance.


But he was determined not to allow thoughts of the Devil to intrude, even though the anniversary of that life-altering, never-to-be-forgotten night when the white stag had rescued him from the monster was just around the corner. Elijah had halted several times to gauge the mood of the forest and discovered no cause for alarm. It should be a quiet evening, thank god. Elijah still bore faint bruises and scabs from his most recent battle with the Devil on Christmas Eve, and though he swore up and down that he was totally fit again, Sean wasn’t anxious to have that claim tested by a repeat encounter. He was only a pre-med student, damn it, not yet a full-fledged doctor.


“How much further is it?” Sean said, his voice sounding almost startlingly loud, even though he’d pitched it low. Winter nights in the pines were virtually silent compared to the rest of the year, when a constant, swelling chorus of song rose from the numerous and varied inhabitants of the cedar swamps and cranberry bogs and, of course, the pine forests. The pines equivalent of taxi horns, police sirens and car alarms, Sean had called it, making Elijah laugh.


“Not too much further,” Elijah assured him, “only about another half-mile. Hang in there, Sean. I promise you, it’ll be worth it.” He glanced back over his shoulder and gave him an encouraging smile.


Even Elijah’s godawful ugly gray hat (to which Sean had become absurdly attached and which was, as ever, pulled haphazardly down over the young man’s kitten fur auburn hair) couldn’t dim his glowing beauty. Sean felt in that moment that he could follow Elijah straight to the moon and back again and never grow weary.


“I’m sure it will be worth it,” he agreed softly. “You’ve never disappointed me yet.” He’d seen many unforgettable sights over the months since he moved to the pines, and with over a million acres for them to explore Elijah had never yet found it necessary to take Sean to the same place twice.


A ghostly figure flitting among the trees some yards away on their left snagged his attention like one of the unruly pine branches catching at his clothes. The liquid gleam of dark eyes in the shadows reminded him of the deer, fox, rabbits and other wild creatures that had been watching as he carried the injured Woodjin home on his back. He was growing accustomed to a largely unseen contingent of four-footed pineys pacing them on their walks; Elijah said they were still too timid of Sean to venture closer, but they were avidly curious about the Woodjin’s mate.


“We’ve got company again,” he remarked.


“Three does.” Elijah supplied the answer without even having to check.


“I see.” He couldn’t stop the funny note that crept into his voice or the sudden heat that burned in his cheeks, for the memory of one of the most embarrassing moments of his entire adult life, when he’d assured Elijah, in all seriousness, that he’d try to be understanding if he felt the urge to mate with a doe during the rutting season in November, rose up to haunt him.


Elijah immediately picked up on that funny note, just as Sean had known he would, damn him. He stopped and looked back again. “Sean,” he spoke solemnly, but the moonlight clearly revealed the wickedly teasing sparkle in those midnight blue eyes. “I have only two words for you… doe porn!” Then, giggling madly, Elijah pelted away with Sean in hot pursuit.


“Elijah Wood, you are toast! Do you hear me? Toast, and I don’t mean the kind you put butter on!” Hands outstretched, Sean tore after him, sand spurting out from beneath his heels. “You promised me you’d never, ever bring that up again!”


“I’m sorry!” Elijah shouted over his shoulder; he could barely get the apology out between giggles. “But how could I resist an opening like that?”


Within a very few yards, a laughing, breathless Sean caught up to Elijah, who obviously hadn’t been trying very hard to get away, and grabbed him around the waist. For once Sean didn’t waste any time with tickling or wrestling, but simply hauled him close and smothered that giggling mouth into silence with a passionate kiss.


“Just in case any of those does is getting funny ideas,” Sean said with satisfaction when he finally let a limp Elijah go. “I keep wondering if maybe they’re plotting to take me out or something. I mean, hell, if I were a doe… What’s so funny?”


“P-Plotting to t-take you out?” Elijah practically crumpled to the ground, he was laughing so hard. “Oh Sean, you’ve read way too many Far Side cartoons.” When he eventually stopped laughing and wiped away the tears freezing on his cheeks, he said, “Anyway, it might interest you to know that the does think we make a very cute couple.”


“Oh they do, do they?” Sean said, raising one eyebrow skeptically. He still had trouble sometimes deciding if Elijah was being serious or not when he said things like that.


“I swear.” Smiling, Elijah crossed his heart, and then took Sean’s hand. It was a tight fit to walk side by side on the narrow path, but they managed it. “And let me add that I’m very, very glad you aren’t a doe.”


Approximately a quarter of a mile later, the path began to widen, until it became more a road than a trail as it wound gradually upward. The uphill climb was a definite novelty for Sean. The Pine Barrens was one of the flattest places on the planet. This observation jogged his memory about something he had read.


“Wait a minute, I think I know where we are!” Seam exclaimed, delighted to have trumped Elijah for once. “This is Apple Pie Hill, isn’t it? ‘209 feet above sea level, the highest point in the pines’,” he recited like a schoolboy.


“Excuse me, but who’s the Woodjin here? Are you trying to do me out of a job?” Elijah asked with mock indignation, but he squeezed Sean’s hand and grinned. "You're a good student, Sean," he said proudly.


Sean grinned back. “I’ve been doing my pines homework, too, you know, not just my chemistry and physics.”


It was hardly an arduous climb; in no time at all they reached the summit of Apple Pie Hill (and there was a misnomer, Sean thought; it looked nothing like an apple pie, and barely qualified as a hill) and emerged from the pine trees onto a wide, flat, roughly circular area barren of all but a few straggly dwarf pines and a tall metal structure that stood stark and uninviting in the pale light of the moon. It was supported by a network of narrow red and white painted struts, and white metal stairs zigzagged steeply up to a square booth, also painted red and white, with glass windows that glinted where they caught the moon’s rays.


“This is what I brought you to see, Sean: the fire watch tower,” Elijah said enthusiastically, pulling him toward it. “Or rather, the view from the top. It’s fantastic.”


Sean dropped Elijah’s hand and halted, suddenly understanding exactly where Elijah intended them to hold their New Year’s celebration. “Hang on, Elijah. You don’t really expect me to climb that thing, do you?” Flimsy as hell was the first phrase that came to Sean’s mind as he contemplated the tower looming high overhead. Scarily dangerous was the second.


“But… that’s why we’re here.” Elijah looked surprised by the question. “You’re not afraid of heights, are you? The tower is only 60 feet high; that’s nothing compared to a skyscraper like Trump Tower.”


Sean wasn’t particularly afraid of heights, actually, not after spending so many years working and living high above Manhattan. Hell, he’d climbed to the top of the Barnegat Lighthouse more times than he could count, and back in February he’d stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower and described the view to Elijah over his cell phone. But that had been different. There had been guardrails and plexiglass barriers and other reassuringly solid objects between him and the ground. Okay, so the tower might be only 60 feet high, but it was still high enough for someone to die if they fell from it, and it looked all too easy to do just that. One misstep and… His mind shied away from the mental image that ensued.


“That’s comparing apples and oranges,” he pointed out. “Trump Tower isn’t a Tinker Toy that will probably collapse right under us before we even reach the top.’


“It won’t collapse. I’ve climbed this tower hundreds of times, and it’s perfectly sound.”


“Elijah, it doesn’t look as if a single safety precaution has been taken.”


Elijah was silent for a moment, considering Sean’s words. “I expect it looks that way to you,” he said slowly, “but Sean, there’s such a thing as common sense, and in the pines we expect people to use it, instead of plastering everything in warning signs and bannisters.”


He returned to Sean’s side, and there was neither anger nor impatience in his voice as he continued quietly, “If you really don’t want to go up the tower, we won’t. There are plenty of other beautiful places to see in the New Year. But I would never ask you to take a frivolous risk, not after everything we’ve been through.” He smiled. “I’d like to keep you around for a while now I’ve got you.”


Sean stared up at the tower again then back at Elijah, patiently waiting. It was impossible at this moment not to compare his attitude with that of Chris, who had always ridiculed Sean for his cautious impulses and would have simply walked away in disgust and left him behind.


He had lived so much of his life in fear, too much, and if he couldn’t trust Elijah, then he didn’t deserve him. Besides, he was a piney now, and he had to stop thinking like a foreigner.


“Okay, let’s do it,” he said positively, and strode toward the base of the tower before he could have any second thoughts.


Elijah went first, nimble and fearless as Maggie as he trod lightly from step to step. Even though it was nighttime, the moon gave off more than sufficient light to show the way. Too much, in fact, for Sean would have preferred not to see the gaping openings in the framework through which a person could easily fall if he stumbled or lost his balance. Just don’t think about it, he cautioned himself.


He had tugged off his gloves and stuffed them in his pocket before beginning the climb, the better to grip the handrails, though the metal was so cold it stung, and he resolutely concentrated on setting his booted feet firmly and squarely down in the center of each step, doing his best not to notice how the shadowed ground was rapidly growing further and further away.


“How’s it going?” Elijah asked over the hollow clang clang clang clang of their footsteps.


“Great!” Sean said with a forced cheerfulness that wouldn’t have deceived a child, much less Elijah.


“Don’t worry, we’re almost to the top.”


“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he retorted, and Elijah giggled, and Sean decided that maybe the climb really wasn’t so bad after all.


“Here we are,” Elijah announced. He had reached the top of the stairs where there was a tiny platform with just enough room for the two of them to stand. “Take a look, Sean.”


Sean stepped up beside him, and stared out at a vista of such breathtaking beauty and splendor that he let out an involuntary gasp. “Holy shit!” His fear vanished in a heartbeat. Elijah had been right. It was fantastic. Beyond fantastic.


They might have been standing on the deck of a sailing ship, for a vast sea of moon-silvered green surrounded them on all sides. Far away in the distance, the lights of the nearest towns winked like fireflies. Above, the stars shone in the midnight blue vault of the heavens with piercing intensity. He could easily pick out the constellations he knew, such as Orion, Hercules, the Pleiades, and Cassiopeia, and the five-pointed brilliance of the planet Venus. The moon seemed close enough to touch, and even the quarter of it that was covered in darkness was plainly visible. In all his travels, Sean could not remember having ever seen a night sky so beautiful.


But his gaze was inexorably drawn back to the pines. With his intellect he understood that it covered 1.1 million acres; for the first time, though, he truly comprehended what that meant. It was no longer a mere fact, a dry statistic. All this was now his home. All this was the responsibility of the young man standing at his side. A sense of profound awe filled him.


“The Woodjin’s realm,” he said, taking Elijah’s hand and holding it tightly.


“Yes.” And in Elijah’s voice was a note of fierce pride.


Sean turned his head to look at Elijah, and he had another of those strange, almost unsettling visions, of the white stag’s ebon antlers, ivory fur, velvet-soft muzzle and great dark eyes superimposed over his lover’s familiar features. So delicate was the balance, so thin the fabric, between stag and human, between Woodjin and Elijah.


Then Elijah asked, “Are you glad now that you came up here?” and the vision vanished.


“Hell, yeah,” Sean replied. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”


The starlight glimmered in eyes suddenly bright with tears as Elijah said simply, “I’m glad.”


Sean felt that he could never get his fill of the view. But the bitter cold, intensified by the wind that, unhindered now by the trees, blew strongly in their faces, cut through all the layers of clothes to chill his damp skin. He consulted the illuminated dial of his Rolex.


“It’s a quarter to midnight, Elijah. We better open the champagne.”


Elijah nodded and fished a brass Yale key out of the pocket of his canvas barn jacket.


“It's kept locked?” Sean asked. “You mean to tell me there are other crazy people out there who climb up the tower?”


Elijah was grinning as he inserted the key in the lock and turned it. “Believe it or not, this is a favorite spot for teens to come and make out,” he explained. “If they could get inside the booth, well…”


“There’d be more than making out going on, huh?”


“Definitely.” Elijah pushed open the door and they went inside. The small room was totally unheated, but without the wind biting at him, Sean immediately felt warmer.


There wasn’t much kept in the fire tower, he discovered: a couple of metal folding chairs and a battered office desk with a short-wave radio and several USGS quadrangle maps on it, and that was about it.


“Spartan,” he observed as he set his backpack down on the gray linoleum floor.


“It’s really only in use during the fire season in the spring, so there’s no point to leaving anything much here in between,” Elijah explained. He flicked open one of the Hudson Bay blankets and spread it out over the linoleum.


Sean took out the portable cooler and removed the bottle of champagne. “Hey, did we remember to pack glasses?” he asked. The Taittinger was much too fine a champagne to be swigged directly from the bottle.


Elijah rummaged in his own backpack and pulled out a stack of blue plastic Dixie cups. “Voila! Our champagne glasses, monsieur,” he said, pulling two from the bottom of the stack with a flourish.


“Very elegant design,” Sean joked.


“Wawa’s finest.” The box of Butterscotch Krimpets joined the plastic cups on the blanket, and the sight made Sean absurdly happy. His blini and caviar days were now a thing of the past, thank god.


Though he would normally have treated the Taittinger with a lot more respect, it was New Year’s Eve, after all, and he thought Elijah might appreciate a little drama. So instead of gently easing the cork out, Sean gave the champagne a brisk shake first. He aimed the neck of the bottle away from Elijah, and using his thumbs, forced the cork out. It shot free with an explosive POP, sharp as the crack of a rifle, ricocheted harmlessly off the window, and the champagne fountained up and foam spilled over Sean’s fingers.


Elijah’s eyes were sparkling with delight. “Now that was an impressive performance,” he said, holding out the cups, one in either hand, “almost as impressive as some of your other performances,” and Sean laughed as he poured the bubbly.


A quick glance at his watch showed that it was now four minutes to midnight. “Nearly time,” he said, and their eyes met, and he could see shining in Elijah’s the same excitement and anticipation that he was feeling. For the first time in longer than he could remember, the ringing in of the New Year was cause for celebration instead of dread, for joy instead of depression.


By unspoken consent, they went back outside to the platform to count down the remaining minutes. Holding his cup aloft, Sean stared at the sweeping second hand of his Rolex.


“Here we go!” he exclaimed, and together he and Elijah chanted, “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…


“Happy New Year!” They shouted to the starry sky and clinked their cups exuberantly, and downed their champagne. Elijah giggled as the bubbles tickled his nose, and then sneezed.


"Sorry, I don't drink champagne very often," he said, giggling again as if the Taittinger had gone straight to his head.


Elation surged up inside Sean, fizzing and popping until he might have been the champagne-filled bottle himself. He pulled Elijah into an emotional embrace. “I love you, god, I love you,” he said in a choked whisper. “This is the best friggin’ New Year I’ve ever had.”


A year ago this night, he and Chris had been hosting a massive New Year’s Eve party at their spacious apartment on Central Park West, and Sean had never felt more isolated and alone, even surrounded by the 100-odd elegantly dressed guests. And now...


Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference.


The lines from the Robert Frost poem that he’d not read in years suddenly sprang into his mind. That night had been the turning point, driving him a few days later out of New York and onto a quiet back road through the Pine Barrens, that less traveled road that Chris had always hated for him to take. And look where it had brought him, and more importantly what it had brought him.


The Woodjin. Elijah.


“Elijah.”


The Taittinger was sheer bliss, even drunk from a plastic Dixie cup, but better by far was the kiss they now shared, and the taste of the champagne on Elijah’s lips went straight to Sean's head.


“Sean, look. Fireworks.” Elijah pointed toward the east, and Sean followed the line of his index finger. Tiny, intense starbursts of blue, white, green and red were exploding in the distance, in some celebrating town beyond the borders of the pines. And yet it seemed to Sean as if they existed solely for him and Elijah to enjoy on this magical night, conjured, perhaps, by the hand of an obliging wizard.


They stood watching the fireworks display for some time, reluctant despite the cold to leave the platform. Elijah stood close behind Sean with his chin on his shoulder and his arms encircling him, warm, strong and secure.He’ll never let me fall, Sean thought, and wondered how he could ever have been afraid to climb the tower.


Eventually they went back inside to eat the Butterscotch Krimpets and finish the champagne, and demonstrate exactly why the fire watch booth needed to be kept locked. By the time they finally made their way back down the tower and set out on the long hike home, the stars were fading, the moon had set, and the first dawn of the New Year was rising in rose-gold splendor above the pines.


~end~



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