Nathan Merritt opened his eyes and saw tree limbs swaying gently overhead. All sprang from trees that were familiar to the lanky, towheaded young man of thirty: oaks; salt cedars; pines; and others he could not name but which he recognized as native to coastal Georgia, the land of his birth. It was logical to deduce, then, that he was close to home.
And this made sense. He was heading home after all; indeed, the last thing he remembered was crossing from South Carolina into Georgia via Interstate-95. The exit to his hometown of Summerville was just ahead.
What did not make sense was his present situation: lying on a soft bed of dark rich earth, surrounded by trees, all alone. Where was he? Where was his car? He had been behind the wheel one minute, and in the very next he had found himself here, with not the first clue as to how he had arrived.
Strangely enough, Nathan was not alarmed at first, merely puzzled. He sat up, glanced around. Yes, this sort of terrain was definitely well known to him, even if his specific location was not. It was the fascinating and generous setting of his boyhood and adolescence. He had abandoned it reluctantly in deference to the demands that accompanied one's passage into the adult world: the demands of school, of work, of relationships. But he had never forgotten it, and though he now made his home in a great urban metropolis of the north, and had given up fishing and hunting and mud bogging and a whole host of other pursuits he had enjoyed here for the dispassionate routines of gainful employment at a large financial services firm, there was a piece of his heart that remained in the Georgia lowcountry; it had never left.
But he could appreciate the ambience later. Right now he just wanted to figure out what had happened.
Nathan got to his feet and called out, "Hello? Is anybody here?"
Met with silence, he found himself growing agitated. This was a difficult time for him. He had loved a girl he had met in the city, and she had claimed to love him. Perhaps she did. But she had said and done things that, while not suggesting otherwise, led Nathan to believe she was in love not so much with him as he was, but with the man she believed she could make him. The aftermath of every social occasion seemed to include a critique of his behavior. He had spoken too boastfully, she would tell him, or said something he thought was harmless, but which she considered inappropriate, to somebody else; he had not treated a particular person with the regard he or she deserved. Always there was something wrong with the way he had acted, something he needed to improve. Nathan did not consider himself without fault. He did not think he was a boor, and did not think others considered him as such, but he certainly wasn't averse to a little extra schooling in the social graces. She was generally restrained in her criticisms, but there were so many of them Nathan had gotten worn down. He had tired, too, of being regarded as raw materials, to be collected and shaped into a finished product of someone else's making. Inevitably, he had become defiant and argumentative, and she had responded by behaving in the same way. Thus their relationship had foundered.
And so, not long afterwards, Nathan had asked for some time off. He'd go home, see his family—in sum, he would touch base with the world he had known, and perhaps if the experience did not heal his emotional bruises fully, it would at least bring a measure of comfort.
That was the bet, anyway.
But waking up in the middle of a strange wilderness, entirely unaware of the means by which he was brought here, offered no comfort at all. He saw no use in hollering for help, since he felt sure he must be somewhere near the road. Best, Nathan decided, to start walking.
Through the trees he saw marshland. If any human habitation were to be found, along the marsh was where he would find it. Lots on the marsh—particularly those that boasted frontage on tidal rivers and creeks—usually didn't last long. And because of the clear view afforded by the marshes, Nathan expected that as soon as he stepped out far enough into them, he would be able to spot at least a few houses somewhere along the edge of dry land. If not, then he could always try to walk to the Interstate. It skirted the marshlands fairly close on some parts of its route through southeast Georgia.
There had to be some human development nearby; there had to be.
And then—noise. Nathan heard twigs snapping, palmettos being shoved aside. And the sound was becoming progressively louder. Someone or something was coming towards him. He hoped it was someone. It would not do at all to confront a wild boar today.
A woman's voice—clear, silvery, but older—lilting through the maritime forest: "Nathan? Nathan, where are you?"
Nathan's heart leapt. It was a human being, and better yet a human being who knew his name, although he failed to recognize the person speaking. But that was no problem. Perhaps a search party had been organized for him.
Still, just what was going on?
Finally the lady who had called him appeared. She was a bit on the stout side, with a plump rosy face and a well-tended cloud of white hair, wearing a blue windbreaker and large black-rimmed glasses.
"Oh, there you are!" she said. "I've been looking all over for you."
"I'm glad you found me, ma'am," Nathan replied. "I had no idea where I was." He paused and then, feeling rather foolish, he added, "Still don't, actually. Where am I?"
The lady smiled. "You're in a thicket. And I'm here to help you find your way out of it."
"I can see I'm in a thicket," Nathan said, "and thank you for coming to help me. I really appreciate it, even though I don't know how you found me or why you were looking for me in the first place—or even how I got here. See, I'm totally confused right now, and it would really help me if you could explain…all of this."
"I tell you what," his new friend said. "Let's go ahead and start looking, and while we're at it, I'll answer all of your questions. We don't have a lot of time, though, so we need to start looking now."
"Looking for what?" Nathan asked, annoyed by her vagueness.
"A way out, just like I told you," the woman answered. "By the way, my name's Jeanette."
"Nice to meet you; I would tell you my name's Nathan, but you already know that somehow."
"Yes. Come on, then; let's get cracking here. Time's a-wasting." Jeanette looked around. Off to the right, about twenty yards or so, appeared to be an open space in the canopy of low-hanging branches, and the underbrush was less thick as well.
"Let's try over there first," she suggested. "Follow me."
"Excuse me, ma'am," Nathan said as she set off, with him following.
"I was hoping you'd tell me, but I guess I'll just have to ask: how do you know my name, and how did I get here—wherever this is?"
"For starters," Jeanette said, "I know your name because I was told you'd be here."
"Told by who?"
"I'm not at liberty to say."
"Because I was asked not to."
"Who asked you not to?"
"The same authority who told me you'd be here."
Nathan, beginning to get angry, shook his head. "Okay, I can see we're going nowhere with that. Can you at least tell me how I ended up here, then? Or does that have to be a secret too?"
"I was fixin' to tell you," Jeanette said, pushing a myrtle branch out of her way and holding it back as Nathan came behind her. "But first let me ask you this: what's the last thing you remember?"
"I was driving home."
"To Summerville, I take it."
"Yeah, how did you know?"
"I was told."
"Let me guess: by the same ones who told you where to find me, right?"
"Very good," said Jeanette. "Anything else you can recall?"
"No. That's it."
"Well, I hate to break it to you, dear, but you didn't make it to Summerville."
"No kidding," Nathan retorted. "I'm here, with you—and I don't know any more now than when I first met you. Could you at least tell me why I didn't make it? Or where my car is? Those are two things I'd really like to know. I'll settle for one if you really have to be secretive."
Jeanette stopped, turned, and faced Nathan with a look of mild hurt. "You ought not to be so sarcastic with me. I'm trying to help you here."
"How are you helping me? All I want is a little bit of information and you're not giving it to me."
"You want information? Okay. You've been in an accident. You car is totaled. How's that for information?"
"It's great. It's what I wanted to know."
"I'm glad to see you're satisfied," Jeanette replied. She resumed her trek for the marsh.
"Well, wait—there's one more thing. How did I end up here?"
"Oh, that's an easy one," Jeanette said, preoccupied with getting past a clutch of thorny vines. "You got totaled too."
"What did you say?"
"You fell asleep at the wheel, baby. You went off the road and decided you'd go head-on with a big fat pine tree. The tree won, by the way."
Nathan felt the air go out of his lungs; his guts felt cold. "I don't feel hurt."
"You wouldn't feel hurt right now. You will later, though, at least if you can make it out of this thicket."
"What happens if I don't make it out?"
"In that case you won't feel anything at all."
"I don't understand. You've lost me."
"It's your head that got hurt the worst," Jeanette continued, ignoring his last comment.
Nathan rubbed his hand over the back of his head, and then looked at his palms. There was no blood. "Are you sure?" he asked Jeanette.
"Positive," she answered.
"So what happened then? Did I get disoriented and just wander into this place before I passed out?"
"In a manner of speaking," Jeanette said.
Nathan wanted to pursue the matter further, but they had reached the area in which the high ground sloped down into the marsh, and he reckoned the sooner they got out of here, the sooner he'd be rid of this weird old woman. But the underbrush had grown tall again and there were a multitude of vines hanging down before them, so the going wouldn't be easy.
Jeanette stopped, said, "We can't go this way. We'll have to find another one."
"What are you talking about?" Nathan demanded. "What's wrong with this way?" While a bit thick, the route certainly didn't look impassible.
"We can't go through it," said Jeanette. "It's not the right way."
"Oh, come on," Nathan grumbled, brushing past her.
"Try going that way, sweetheart. See what happens."
And indeed Nathan saw what happened; or rather, he felt it. Try as he might, he could not get past the underbrush. He was unable to get his footing; the assorted weeds and wild grasses kept tripping him up. A soft breeze blew, prodding the vines to slap him in the face, not hard but enough to sting a bit. In a few minutes he had grown so frustrated that he tried to lunge out into the marsh, but here too he was thwarted; the vines caught him, threw him back. He fell backward, landing hard on his rump. He looked up at Jeanette, who appeared to take grim satisfaction in the mixture of anger and disbelief on the young man's face.
"Told you, didn't I?" she said, reaching down and taking Nathan's arm. "Let's get you back on your feet."
Nathan jerked away. "I can get up on my own," he said, breathing hard as he rose. "I don't understand what happened. Why couldn't I get out?"
"It wasn't the way," Jeanette informed him, "just like I tried to tell you it wasn't. I truly believe I can get you out of here, baby, and I'm doing my best to make that happen. But you have to give me a little bit of cooperation. I can't have you getting all defiant and mad at me when I tell you how things are. I don't make the rules here, you know."
"But where is here?" Nathan cried out. "Where are we?"
"We're in a thicket, dear—or something that's very much like a thicket. You know what a thicket is, right? It's a little patch of trees and bushes. It's a little patch that's way too small to be a forest, but it's not cleared land either. It's something in-between. That's what this is: an in-between place."
"But thickets are small," Nathan protested. "And if we're in one, there should be some kind of civilization nearby. Where did you come from, just now?"
"Yeah—you," Nathan said. "Back that way, right?" He pointed in the direction from which she had made her approach. "Why don't we just go there?"
"That's the way I came, yes, but it's not the way I can go back. I've tried, believe me. But I can't do it. I'm not sure if there's any way for me out of here—not anymore. See, Nathan, I've been in this thicket for awhile now, much longer than you have. And I want to see you get out of it because you're young and I just think you should have more time. I think you deserve it. I've had my time, and it's been wonderful. So I'm all right with how things are. I just wanted to give you a hand. That's the kind of person I am. That's the kind of person my mama and daddy raised me to be. Now come on." She was veering off to the right now, towards a tiny trail that looked as if it had made by raccoons or some other small feral creatures. "I've got a good feeling about this one. But we'll have to hurry. The clock's ticking for both of us."
As he accompanied her along the trail, Nathan noticed that Jeanette was wiping tears from her eyes. "I'm sorry," he said, thinking his rough tone had upset her. "Really, I didn't mean to be so harsh with you."
"Oh, it's all right. I wasn't crying because of that, actually. When I just talked about my mama and daddy now, it got me to thinking about them—and I always get teary-eyed when I think about them for too long."
"Y'all were close?"
"Oh, yes, we were. I lost my daddy when I was twenty-seven and I lost my mama when I was thirty-one. So it's been a good long while since I've seen them. My daddy was a jewelry salesman. When I was a little girl and school had let out, Mama and I would go with him on the train. That's why I've always loved trains. I passed that love on to my three boys. When they were still small, we'd all get down on the living room floor and play with the train sets I used to buy them, but I really think I was the one who got the biggest kick of all out of those train sets. Oh, my, the things you think about at the end…" She stopped, put her hand over her face. The woman seemed brittle and Nathan, though flummoxed by his present circumstances, even now retained his natural empathy for people who were distress. He came and put his arm around her.
"Do you want to hold up here for a minute?" he asked.
Jeanette took her hand from her face, patted him in the arm. She was composed again. "No, honey; for your sake, we need to forge ahead."
"I don't understand anything you've told me so far, Jeanette—except why you like trains. I got that much."
Jeanette laughed: the giggle of a carefree schoolgirl, incongruous in a woman clearly in her mid-seventies but welcome and encouraging. "I know you haven't understood anything. I was trying to be coy and all I did was end up making you mad. Goodness me. I'm sorry about that." She smiled. "But I think you're starting to figure things out on your own. You just don't want to believe it."
Nathan was silent for a moment. Fragments of their prior conversation floated about in his head:
"You got totaled too."
"An in-between place…"
Then he whispered, "This isn't real, is it?"
"It's real in its own way," Jeanette answered. "It's just not the same kind of real as what you and I are used to."
"Yeah, but we're not between woods and open land, though, are we? We're between…" He could not finish the sentence.
"Between life and death," Jeanette concluded for him.
Nathan had lost the power of speech. His jaw clenched; he began to shake his head in defiance, in despair.
"Now don't get like that," Jeanette advised. "We can still turn this thing around."
Meekly Nathan fell in behind her as she again headed up the trail. The rest of the walk was a blur. Only when they came to the end of the trail, where it opened onto the marsh, did he finally feel as if he could string a few coherent sentences together again. He opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Jeanette announced, "Yes, I think this is the one."
She looked back at Nathan.
"All you've got to do now is start walking," she said, "out of the thicket here and into the marsh. Keep going out farther and farther, and eventually you'll get to where you need to be: the living world. Just don't look back. I mean, it's not like you'll be trapped here or anything if you do, but once you're on your way out you should just forget all about this place—and me."
"How can I do that?" Nathan asked quietly.
Jeanette shrugged. "Hey, for all you know, this might have just been some bizarre dream—certainly nothing to dwell on. Now, it's time for you to go."
He paused for a moment. "You're coming too, right?"
"Why can't you?"
"Because I think my time is up."
"But how do you know that?"
"Well, I just happened to notice that my own way out seems to have opened up," she said, and motioned with her head toward a clearing off to the side of them. "There it is. See it?"
Nathan looked over and saw what appeared to be a miniature steam locomotive, sitting on equally petite railroad tracks; attached to the locomotive was a single passenger car. The passenger car too had a unique design, in that it was entirely open, with a cloth tarp over it and just one padded bench for seating. He was sure that neither the little train nor the tracks had been there a moment ago.
"I think that's my ride," Jeanette said, smiling at him.
"I'm so sorry," Nathan said. "I'm so very sorry."
"Don't be. I'm not. It was wonderful, simply wonderful, every bit of it. And I'm so glad I closed it out by having this time with you. Now, then: when you get on that path I showed you, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and don't look back. Because that's what life is, you know: just putting one foot in front of the other. Goodbye to you now." Standing on tiptoes, she kissed him on the cheek: a soft, sweet peck. "I just had to do that, you handsome thing. I hope you don't mind."
"I don't mind at all. Thank you, Jeanette."
Leaving Nathan, she walked over to the train, climbed into the passenger car, and sat down. As soon as she had arranged herself, the train came to life: its whistle squealed, there was the sound of bells, and suddenly it was chuffing away from Nathan, throwing off ever larger bursts of steam as it gained speed. Jeanette, grinning, waved and blew a kiss to him as the train carried her off. He pretended to catch the kiss, waved back.
At last the train rounded a bend and Nathan could neither see it nor hear it anymore. He turned and began to follow the trail that would take him home, back to a world and a life he would never again take for granted. He came into the marsh, where he found that the sun overhead was growing very bright. He should have felt hot under its gaze, but he didn't. This light was comforting; this light was good. So he did not have any fear at all when, an indeterminate amount of time later, it swept down across the marshlands to bear him away.
A broken arm. Lacerations to the face and scalp. Some lost teeth. Worst of all, significant head trauma.
But Nathan Merritt was alive. He would need some rehabilitative therapy, but a full recovery was not only possible, but likely. He was going to be okay.
And his friend Jeanette was going to be okay too, Nathan thought, though in a way far different from his; joyous, even, upon reaching her voyage's ultimate destination. He thought so because, just on a whim really, he had consulted the editions of his hometown newspaper during the first week of his hospital stay, including the two days he had lain comatose; specifically he consulted the obituary section, a place he did not like to go but he felt he needed to go, if he were to ever understand fully the mystery of thickets.
Nathan's search was vindicated when he found a notice that had been posted two days after he woke up. It began with this sentence: "Jeanette T. Hendricks, 76, of Summerville, died Wednesday at Coastal Georgia Regional Medical Center after a long illness."