It was a sound he might have heard any night on the edge of the woods, machete in hand, bent from cutting bamboo from the slope beyond the highway. It might have been one of his: a tall, lissome stalk falling, heavy with summer dew. A branch from a tree, maybe, further in. That kind of sound. A forest sound. Not much odd about it.
The glow, though. That caught his eye. He saw it down in the undergrowth a few yards away, faint and white, as he straightened to wipe his brow. A little quarter-sized moon, like the one in the sky — but here, no longer distant.
Ellis went to it. It wasn’t easy, as no Lowcountry forest ever was, choked by vines and branches and orb-weaver webs. By the time he was near enough to reach for it, he could tell what it was. An iPhone, unlocked, a blank white screen displayed. His eyes watered as he took in its sole report: The page could not load because the connection was lost.
“Ellis,” a voice spoke, and he knew it. “Ellis. Ellis. Ellis.”
He could see her now, too, lying in the halo cast by the phone — hers, he assumed. He rubbed his neck, stiff and cramped from craning to watch the highway for police lights. Sara Nilsson. Among the last names he would expect to cross his mind now, after so many years. Which was stranger, he wondered. Seeing her in this place, at this time, and in this situation — or seeing her again in this town, in this state?
“Ellis,” she murmured again. Her head shifted on the pine needle carpet. “Ellis, Ellis, Ellis, Ellis.”
“Damn it,” he said.
Ellis had planned for many situations he might face in the dark off the highway. He had a plan for if a cop pulled over, a plan for if a car broke down nearby, a plan for meeting hitchhikers or wandering homeless, or for if it rained, if it flooded. He had no plan for this.
“Damn it,” he tried again. It didn’t help.
Sara grew still and did not speak again. He wanted to call 911, but then he’d have to explain why he was here, cutting raw material for his sculptures — which he wasn’t entirely sure was legal. He could leave her alone, let the ambulance find her when they arrived; but that didn’t sit well, either.
Only one option, then. He didn’t like it, but there was nothing else left to do.
* * *
When Sara woke she was strapped into the passenger seat of someone’s car. She drew a rattled breath, taking in everything around her in a moment or two. Ellis driving, the dashboard’s dull red glow, the stack of hewn green poles leaning between the two seats from the back. The broken ends of a few had caught in her tousled hair, and she wrenched her head away, not thinking. “Oww,” she growled.
Ellis stared at her, then looked ahead at the road. Something in him made her feel like he was afraid, or at least unsettled. She wasn’t. Not afraid, or even surprised. She wondered briefly why that should be, then shrugged it away.
“You were calling for me,” Ellis said, relief apparent in his voice.
“You said my name.”
Sara frowned. “I don’t remember. Where…?” She looked out at the exit signs sweeping by them, their sentinel green reassuring against the dark.
“Twenty-six. I couldn’t leave you there. You were in the woods, by the shoulder.”
“Where you were getting all of that,” she said, and gestured behind them.
“I use it for my pieces,” Ellis frowned. “You were saying it over and over. Back there. My name.”
Sara winced and said nothing. She remembered some of it now, though not all. There had been a party. And wine. Glass after glass of irony-laced rosé. The faces blurred in her mind — even her own ex’s, who had shadowed her the night long despite her clear disinterest — till they became Ellis’s blurred face, standing over her in the bamboo grove. But no…the party was in Austin, in a trendy loft looking east over the river. Now she was here, a thousand miles away, with Ellis.
She checked her phone. It was the same day, Friday night, mere hours since she had watched the first stars gathering, wondering why she had come to the party. So. She hadn’t lost much time.
But that… Wasn’t. Possible.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Ellis asked, breaking into her thought. “I mean, you don’t have to, but—”
“If you’re asking why it was you who found me,” she spoke slowly, “I don’t think I have an answer for that.”
Ellis shifted in his seat and rubbed his neck. He shot her a careful look, and she flushed. That was not at all what he’d been asking. So why had she said that? Where had it come from? She was aware of something in the back of her mind, some process that was in motion within her, or around her, that she couldn’t put words to, or even feelings to. Something that was supposed to happen. She sucked in her lower lip, then bit down.
“Sara,” Ellis said after a while. “You seem really, really calm.”
“For someone who was just out in the cold, in the woods, alone, well past two.”
She smiled. There was nothing frightening about the woods, or the night. There never had been, to her. The night was something she had always reveled in, an infinite ocean that pulled at her with tides of its own.
When she looked at Ellis again he was distracted, his thought miles away. His head shook slowly and his eyes glimmered with light from the endless stream of reflectors on the road. “What were you doing there by the highway?” he blurted. “What happened to you?”
“I don’t know,” she said. Sara peered away out her window. Her eyes flickered up past the treeline, into the sky. “But I know where I need to go now.”
* * *
Ellis relaxed his grip on the wheel and took a breath. He’d been driving in a trance for a while, barely thinking of where they would go. An odd sensation crept over him as she turned and met his eyes: he hadn’t seen Sara in over a decade, or thought about her in nearly as long, but it felt as if they’d been doing this together — making this same drive — many times over many nights and for many years.
“Okay,” he said. “Where is that?”
Ellis shook his head, more in wonder now than bewilderment. Part of him realized that he would drive her anywhere, for as long as it would take. That part of him knew it, and wished it were otherwise.
Had she known, back then, how he felt about her? About the torch he had born all those years, through middle and high school? Once he believed she could read him clearly, that his feelings were scrawled in deep red on his face when she was near. But he never knew. There was thrill and terror in a crush, but no certainty.
“…why it was you who found me…”
Ellis winced. Why had she said that?
It didn’t matter. If he’d felt a connection between them once, he’d decided long ago that it was not real, never had been. Any link he’d seen was only because he’d wanted it to be here. And that was still true; whatever was happening now with Sara, there was no purpose or meaning in it. It was a fluke that she’d even recognized him at all back there by the highway, or remembered his name. Whatever the case, she was here now. Wanting to go east.
“Okay,” he said again. “But I have to refuel first.”
Sara smiled and nodded, pleased.
Ellis pulled off the interstate and watched for places that were open. It was harder to see now; there were few streetlights this exit, and stop signs seemed to leap out at him from nowhere. His brake foot was getting itchy. “There,” Sara pointed left, and he saw the Hess station, too.
Ellis offered to buy coffee but she waved him off. He left her inside the Element, glad to be alone for a moment. He reached for his wallet, then stopped. A sign was taped to the pump, scrawled in a feathery hand in red Sharpie: CARD READER DOWN PLEASE PAY AT REGISTER. Ellis sighed.
He’d only walked a pace or two toward the building when it hit him. He hadn’t noticed before, but there were two of them. Two gas stations, one right next to the other. The Hess, full of people and gas and machine errors. The other, dark and forlorn. Empty. The ruins of a gas station, its name now illegible on the sun-bleached, rust-embellished sign. They were twinned, in a way. One thriving, but all exterior and shine, no heart inside. The other full of wear and age and character, but all nostalgia, no soul inside.
Something in Ellis wavered. He couldn’t think or move or blink. Somehow he had lost the quality of contrast — it was hard to tell which of the two he needed to pay. His temples pulsed, something throbbed behind his eyes, and then it passed. Ellis swore.
“Did you get it?” Sara asked when he climbed into the driver’s seat again.
“Yeah, filled it up. Cost me almost—”
“No. Not the gas.”
He froze. Sara’s eyes glimmered, and Ellis stared into them. It was the most unnerved she had been so far, and that, more than anything else so far, unsettled him.
“You missed it, didn’t you?” she asked.
Her eyes squeezed a moment. Then she stared straight ahead. Ellis tried to read her, but that had grown no easier. Something seemed to have rattled her, but he wasn’t sure.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said at last. “We have to keep going.”
Sara nodded. “East.”
So they went east.
* * *
Sara watched and listened. They were close now, though she still wasn’t sure to what. But she could feel it. They were drawing near — or it was drawing near to them, maybe. She didn’t know.
But they were close. Whatever was happening to her, the thing that was supposed to happen, it was almost here.
Ellis filled the drive with small talk. Of his dead-end job as a parking attendant, of how he only felt release in his craft, working the poles till they curved and arced into graceful loops and swirls, taking on density and body and mass. Of their school days together and his memories of her, glimpses into her past that she herself had long ago forgotten. She was grateful for it, even if she only half listened. At times she could see his words begin to shift from sound to image and flicker in her mind. She saw things not as she remembered them, but as he did.
* * *
When Ellis ran out of words he glanced at her. They came to a stoplight and he let go of the wheel, suddenly aware of her in an altered way. Of the immensity of her silence, and the reality of her form, the fullness of her presence. The parts of her that had aged and the parts that seemed almost ageless.
“Do you ever wish you could go back?” she asked, and he nearly jumped, startled.
“Back? To what?”
“Being close to things. Having perspective, but being near enough not to if you decide you don’t want to.”
He didn’t know what she was talking about, but he could almost feel it. Or thought that he could. The car idled, waiting for his foot to leave the brake, but Ellis held it there, willing the light not to change. All of the feeling he’d once had for her, all the dreams of her love, were by now embers long cold, ashes long dispersed. But something else was at work. He was rushing eastward down a road he thought he knew, one he’d driven innumerable times. But now the road had caught him and was pulling him in its flow. A river is never the same river twice. A road is never the same road twice.
* * *
“What happened to you?” Ellis asked her again, almost pleading.
“I don’t know,” she said. He caught her eye and she saw something new there, and knew her answer was not enough. “There was a guy. In Austin, and we were living together. People have always depended on me, Ellis. And things got too…” She drew in a deep breath, not knowing if she should draw it out or rush through it. “I got out of my depth. And I realized that I was happy, but…now it was me who depended on him. It scared me, and, I — I left him. I ran away. Then things were good for a while, for more than a while, about a year. Year and half. Then I had the dreams. And I couldn’t get back. Back to where I should have been.”
Ellis took it all in. He didn’t speak, only listened, as if searching inside of her for something, wondering. Her voice cracked. “The connection was lost,” she said.
“Connection?” he finally spoke. “To what?”
“I don’t know,” she said, and this time she meant it. “I don’t feel like myself anymore.” She paused. “Maybe I’m not.”
The light went green, but Ellis didn’t move. She waited for him to speak.
“I don’t know, Sara,” he said. His voice was heavy in a way she hadn’t expected. “I don’t know, but I can tell you one thing. I can’t think about things in that way. I used to. God, I used to obsess about things like that, back when we were in school. Who I really was. Trying to figure myself out. But at some point you just have to stop.” He met her eyes again. “I don’t think what you do is a function of who you are. I think it’s the other way around.”
The light turned yellow again, then red. Sara sighed. The part of her that was waiting, expectant, for the thing that was supposed to happen, that part of her grew restless, eager to begin. But a stronger part of her didn’t want it to. Whatever had done this to her, whatever had brought her here, wherever she’d come from — she didn’t want all of this to end. However she’d ended up in that grove, delirious, not knowing herself, but knowing him.
“And now you’re going…where? East? And what will you do then?”
“I couldn’t explain it,” her brow furrowed. “Not in a way you’d understand. Or maybe you would, but I wouldn’t.”
“I think, though,” she said after a moment. “Wherever it is I need go…I think I’ve been there before.”
* * *
Nearly two hours had passed since he had found her in the woods. He had brought her nearly as far east as they could go, had crossed the bridge to the last island before the sea.
“This is far enough,” Sara said, and he pulled the Element into the gravel lot of a little Catholic church. He walked with her the rest of the way.
The road was sand-strewn and leaf-scattered, and cracked in places. Wayward runners of grass filled the gaps where they could. Ellis kept his eyes straight ahead. He felt, but could not hear, Sara walking beside him.
The island was mostly unlit, but the night seemed not as dark. Was it that early already? More likely, the light of stars no longer had the city to compete with. Soon there was no more road, only beach and a last row of beach houses. He wanted her to stop, wanted to speak one final word to her, but had no idea what to say.
Ellis halted but Sara went on over the sand, and turned to follow the line of the shore. Waves soughed and sighed, their sound empty without the cries of shorebirds. The breeze blew salt into his nose and throat.
Sara walked a short way then turned to climb the stairs of one of the beach houses. It was tall and round, set on high stilts, wreathed in double porches. He watched as she waited at the door and did not knock. A light came on inside.
The door opened and he thought she went through it, but then it closed and the light went out again, and he wondered if he had really seen it, if she had really gone. The house’s round roof seemed to gaze upward, as if searching for answers of its own. The closing felt permanent, irrevocable. But Ellis felt relieved. Things had slipped back into themselves again, the spell — whatever it was — broken. The needle had slipped into its groove.
He turned and walked the long way back to his car beneath the same moon that had cast its bright face on the ocean’s rind, echoing on shoreward. And a thought took shape in his mind, that the moon, too, is a kind of road.