Edward had driven past it probably a hundred times and never really noticed it. Somewhere deep in his mind, he had always known it was there, but it had never really registered. If he were giving directions to someone, he would not have thought to mention Interstate Exit 13-C as a reference point.
Really looking at it for the first time, he could see that it was not new. Nor did it appear to be old and out of use — the surface was unbroken, the lines still visible, and it was not overgrown with weeds.
How had he missed it all this time? Perhaps because he’d never had a reason to take this particular exit. Apparently, he wasn’t alone, as no one — not a single car — was taking it.
He decided to take it.
The street it led to ran straight for about a tenth of a mile before dead-ending at woods. That explains the reason no one takes it, he thought. It goes nowhere.
He was getting ready to turn around when he noticed a small trail through the brush. Curious, he got out and explored it, hesitating for only a moment before entering. The tree limbs and brush made passage difficult at first, but the trail itself was well traveled, the ground worn to dirt. After only a few minutes of walking, he emerged into an opening.
There sat a man at a table, waiting like an office receptionist to ask Can I help you? He didn’t ask that, though.
“We’ve been expecting for you,” he said. “My name is Harold."
“Really? Who is ‘we’?”
Instead of answering, Harold gestured to the direction Edward had come from and said, “The way was not too difficult, I hope?”
Edward glanced behind him, then turned and started to answer but before he could, he saw that the scene before him had already changed. In place of the small table was a larger banquet table covered from end to end with food. Heavy chairs surrounded it, and beside those were about a dozen people in animal costumes. A sheep, a fox, a horse, and an elephant among them.
“Are you tired?” asked Harold.
“Yes,” said Edward.
“Sit,” said Harold.
The animal-people sat, and Edward took his place in the sole empty chair.
“Are you hungry?” asked Harold.
“Yes,” said Edward.
“Eat,” said Harold.
The animal-people began to eat, and so did Edward. The food was better than anything he had ever put into his mouth. Meats, fruits, vegetables, breads, deserts. Ales and wines. Spices unlike any he was familiar with. Once he began eating, he could not stop and did not need to — he never felt full, no matter how much he consumed.
Edward was uncertain how long he had been eating when he realized the sun was setting.
“Are you satisfied?” asked Harold.
Edward realized he was and said so.
“Then let us dance,” said Harold.
Everyone moved from the table to a space clean of leaves and brush and covered only with soft grass. Edward followed, and as the first of the others began to dance in the grass, he instantly felt the urge to join.
At first, there was no music, no guiding rhythm. But as the dancers moved, music began. He could not tell from where. It paced itself to keep up with the dancers rather than the other way around. Edward joined the dancers, and a lithe, silver-haired girl dressed as a wolf came to him and took his hands, which made them tingle. They danced together. Night began to infuse the woods.
After a time, when only a dim bath of waning quarter-moon light remained, the dancing slowed, and everyone stopped moving entirely.
Harold stepped into one of the moonlight silos created by the trees and addressed the group: “Now we bring our party to a close. Let us reflect on what is, what is not, and what could be.”
They formed a ring and joined hands. There was a feeling among them. Something great and beautiful and sad. The moonlight began to fade, and then the hands holding his were no longer there. Then he was no longer there.
When he awoke in his bed the next morning, he was filled with joy until he realized he didn’t know how he had gotten home, nor even what had happened to him the night before. He immediately dressed and got in his car and began to drive back to the exit.
Parked on the interstate shoulder, he looked at the place where the exit should be. There was nothing there. The unbroken woods beyond the shoulder gave no hint of a path.
He looked up and down the interstate. Looked at the way he had come and the way he was heading. Had he gone too far? Or not far enough?
A police cruiser pulled up behind him on the shoulder. Out stepped a large, mirror-shaded state trooper.
“Everything alright, sir? You need some help?” he asked.
“I thought there was an exit here. Exit 13-C. Did I miss it?"
“I’m afraid there’s no such exit here, sir."
Edward looked up and down the interstate again.
“Sir, if you don’t have an emergency, it would be better if you moved along. It isn’t safe to stay on the side if you don’t have to."
Edward ran through the events of the day before. He looked back at the woods. He got into his car. The trooper held his car door open for a moment, looked at the woods.
“You won’t see it again. They never do,” he said to Edward, and then closed Edward’s car door.
In his rearview mirror, Edward watched the trooper walk back to his cruiser, put on his lights, and wait for Edward to pull away.
He put the car in drive and got back on the interstate.