But even as Katie begins to fall in love, she struggles with the dark secret that still haunts and terrifies her . . . a past that set her on a fearful, shattering journey across the country, to the sheltered oasis of Southport. With Jo's empathic and stubborn support, Katie eventually realizes that she must choose between a life of transient safety and one of riskier rewards . . . and that in the darkest hour, love is the only true safe haven.
With over 100 million copies of his books sold, Nicholas Sparks is one of the world's most beloved storytellers. His novels include fourteen #1 New York Times bestsellers, and all of his books, including Three Weeks with My Brother, the memoir he wrote with his brother, Micah, have been New York Times and international bestsellers, and were translated into more than fifty languages. Eleven of Nicholas Sparks's novelsThe Choice, The Longest Ride, The Best of Me, Safe Haven, The Lucky One, The Last Song, Dear John, Nights in Rodanthe, The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, and Message in a Bottlehave been adapted into major motion pictures.
Hometown:New Bern, North Carolina
Date of Birth:December 31, 1965
Place of Birth:Omaha, Nebraska
Education:B.A. in finance, University of Notre Dame, 1988
As Katie wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic rippled through her hair. Carrying three plates in her left hand and another in her right, she wore jeans and a T-shirt that read Ivan’s: Try Our Fish Just for the Halibut. She brought the plates to four men wearing polo shirts; the one closest to her caught her eye and smiled. Though he tried to act as though he was just a friendly guy, she knew he was watching her as she walked away. Melody had mentioned the men had come from Wilmington and were scouting locations for a movie.
After retrieving a pitcher of sweet tea, she refilled their glasses before returning to the waitress station. She stole a glance at the view. It was late April, the temperature hovering just around perfect, and blue skies stretched to the horizon. Beyond her, the Intracoastal was calm despite the breeze and seemed to mirror the color of the sky. A dozen seagulls perched on the railing, waiting to dart beneath the tables if someone dropped a scrap of food.
Ivan Smith, the owner, hated them. He called them rats-with-wings, and he’d already patrolled the railing twice wielding a wooden plunger, trying to scare them off. Melody had leaned toward Katie and confessed that she was more worried about where the plunger had been than she was about the seagulls. Katie said nothing.
She started another pot of sweet tea, wiping down the station. A moment later, she felt someone tap her on the shoulder. She turned to see Ivan’s daughter, Eileen. A pretty, ponytailed nineteen-year-old, she was working part-time as the restaurant hostess.
“Katie—can you take another table?”
Katie scanned her tables, running the rhythm in her head. “Sure.” She nodded.
Eileen walked down the stairs. From nearby tables Katie could hear snippets of conversations—people talking about friends or family, the weather or fishing. At a table in the corner, she saw two people close their menus. She hustled over and took the order, but didn’t linger at the table trying to make small talk, like Melody did. She wasn’t good at small talk, but she was efficient and polite and none of the customers seemed to mind.
She’d been working at the restaurant since early March. Ivan had hired her on a cold, sunny afternoon when the sky was the color of robins’ eggs. When he’d said she could start work the following Monday, it took everything she had not to cry in front of him. She’d waited until she was walking home before breaking down. At the time, she was broke and hadn’t eaten in two days.
She refilled waters and sweet teas and headed to the kitchen. Ricky, one of the cooks, winked at her as he always did. Two days ago he’d asked her out, but she’d told him that she didn’t want to date anyone at the restaurant. She had the feeling he would try again and hoped her instincts were wrong.
“I don’t think it’s going to slow down today,” Ricky commented. He was blond and lanky, perhaps a year or two younger than her, and still lived with his parents. “Every time we think we’re getting caught up, we get slammed again.”
“It’s a beautiful day.”
“But why are people here? On a day like today, they should be at the beach or out fishing. Which is exactly what I’m doing when I finish up here.”
“That sounds like a good idea.”
“Can I drive you home later?”
He offered to drive her at least twice a week. “Thank you, no. I don’t live that far.”
“It’s no problem,” he persisted. “I’d be glad to do it.”
“Walking’s good for me.”
She handed him her ticket and Ricky pinned it up on the wheel and then located one of her orders. She carried the order back to her section and dropped it off at a table.
Ivan’s was a local institution, a restaurant that had been in business for almost thirty years. In the time she’d been working there, she’d come to recognize the regulars, and as she crossed the restaurant floor her eyes traveled over them to the people she hadn’t seen before. Couples flirting, other couples ignoring each other. Families. No one seemed out of place and no one had come around asking for her, but there were still times when her hands began to shake, and even now she slept with a light on.
Her short hair was chestnut brown; she’d been dyeing it in the kitchen sink of the tiny cottage she rented. She wore no makeup and knew her face would pick up a bit of color, maybe too much. She reminded herself to buy sunscreen, but after paying rent and utilities on the cottage, there wasn’t much left for luxuries. Even sunscreen was a stretch. Ivan’s was a good job and she was glad to have it, but the food was inexpensive, which meant the tips weren’t great. On her steady diet of rice and beans, pasta and oatmeal, she’d lost weight in the past four months. She could feel her ribs beneath her shirt, and until a few weeks ago, she’d had dark circles under her eyes that she thought would never go away.
“I think those guys are checking you out,” Melody said, nodding toward the table with the four men from the movie studio. “Especially the brown-haired one. The cute one.”
“Oh,” Katie said. She started another pot of coffee. Anything she said to Melody was sure to get passed around, so Katie usually said very little to her.
“What? You don’t think he’s cute?”
“I didn’t really notice.”
“How can you not notice when a guy is cute?” Melody stared at her in disbelief.
“I don’t know,” Katie answered.
Like Ricky, Melody was a couple of years younger than Katie, maybe twenty-five or so. An auburn-haired, green-eyed minx, she dated a guy named Steve who made deliveries for the home improvement store on the other side of town. Like everyone else in the restaurant, she’d grown up in Southport, which she described as being a paradise for children, families, and the elderly, but the most dismal place on earth for single people. At least once a week, she told Katie that she was planning to move to Wilmington, which had bars and clubs and a lot more shopping. She seemed to know everything about everybody. Gossip, Katie sometimes thought, was Melody’s real profession.
“I heard Ricky asked you out,” she said, changing the subject, “but you said no.”
“I don’t like to date people at work.” Katie pretended to be absorbed in organizing the silverware trays.
“We could double-date. Ricky and Steve go fishing together.”
Katie wondered if Ricky had put her up to it or whether it was Melody’s idea. Maybe both. In the evenings, after the restaurant closed, most of the staff stayed around for a while, visiting over a couple of beers. Aside from Katie, everyone had worked at Ivan’s for years.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Katie demurred.
“I had a bad experience once,” Katie said. “Dating a guy from work, I mean. Since then, I’ve kind of made it a rule not to do it again.”
Melody rolled her eyes before hurrying off to one of her tables. Katie dropped off two checks and cleared empty plates. She kept busy, as she always did, trying to be efficient and invisible. She kept her head down and made sure the waitress station was spotless. It made the day go by faster. She didn’t flirt with the guy from the studio, and when he left he didn’t look back.
Katie worked both the lunch and dinner shift. As day faded into night, she loved watching the sky turning from blue to gray to orange and yellow at the western rim of the world. At sunset, the water sparkled and sailboats heeled in the breeze. The needles on the pine trees seemed to shimmer. As soon as the sun dropped below the horizon, Ivan turned on the propane gas heaters and the coils began to glow like jack-o’-lanterns. Katie’s face had gotten slightly sunburned, and the waves of radiant heat made her skin sting.
Abby and Big Dave replaced Melody and Ricky in the evening. Abby was a high school senior who giggled a lot, and Big Dave had been cooking dinners at Ivan’s for nearly twenty years. He was married with two kids and had a tattoo of a scorpion on his right forearm. He weighed close to three hundred pounds and in the kitchen his face was always shiny. He had nicknames for everyone and called her Katie Kat.
The dinner rush lasted until nine. When it began to clear out, Katie cleaned and closed up the wait station. She helped the busboys carry plates to the dishwasher while her final tables finished up. At one of them was a young couple and she’d seen the rings on their fingers as they held hands across the table. They were attractive and happy, and she felt a sense of déjà vu. She had been like them once, a long time ago, for just a moment. Or so she thought, because she learned the moment was only an illusion. Katie turned away from the blissful couple, wishing that she could erase her memories forever and never have that feeling again.
The next morning, Katie stepped onto the porch with a cup of coffee, the floorboards creaking beneath her bare feet, and leaned against the railing. Lilies sprouted amid the wild grass in what once was a flower bed, and she raised the cup, savoring the aroma as she took a sip.
She liked it here. Southport was different from Boston or Philadelphia or Atlantic City, with their endless sounds of traffic and smells and people rushing along the sidewalks, and it was the first time in her life that she had a place to call her own. The cottage wasn’t much, but it was hers and out of the way and that was enough. It was one of two identical structures located at the end of a gravel lane, former hunting cabins with wooden-plank walls, nestled against a grove of oak and pine trees at the edge of a forest that stretched to the coast. The living room and kitchen were small and the bedroom didn’t have a closet, but the cottage was furnished, including rockers on the front porch, and the rent was a bargain. The place wasn’t decaying, but it was dusty from years of neglect, and the landlord offered to buy the supplies if Katie was willing to spruce it up. Since she’d moved in, she’d spent much of her free time on all fours or standing on chairs, doing exactly that. She scrubbed the bathroom until it sparkled; she washed the ceiling with a damp cloth. She wiped the windows with vinegar and spent hours on her hands and knees, trying her best to remove the rust and grime from the linoleum in the kitchen. She’d filled holes in the walls with Spackle and then sanded the Spackle until it was smooth. She’d painted the walls in the kitchen a cheery yellow and put glossy white paint on the cabinets. Her bedroom was now a light blue, the living room was beige, and last week, she’d put a new slipcover on the couch, which made it look practically new again.
With most of the work now behind her, she liked to sit on the front porch in the afternoons and read books she’d checked out from the library. Aside from coffee, reading was her only indulgence. She didn’t have a television, a radio, a cell phone, or a microwave or even a car, and she could pack all her belongings in a single bag. She was twenty-seven years old, a former long-haired blond with no real friends. She’d moved here with almost nothing, and months later she still had little. She saved half of her tips and every night she folded the money into a coffee can she kept hidden in the crawl space beneath the porch. She kept that money for emergencies and would rather go hungry than touch it. Simply the knowledge that it was there made her breathe easier because the past was always around her and might return at any time. It prowled the world searching for her, and she knew it was growing angrier at every passing day.
“Good morning,” a voice called out, disrupting her thoughts. “You must be Katie.”
Katie turned. On the sagging porch of the cottage next door, she saw a woman with long, unruly brown hair, waving at her. She looked to be in her mid-thirties and wore jeans and a button-up shirt she’d rolled to her elbows. A pair of sunglasses nested in tangled curls on her head. She was holding a small rug and she seemed to be debating whether or not to shake it before finally tossing it aside and starting toward Katie’s. She moved with the energy and ease of someone who exercised regularly.
“Irv Benson told me we’d be neighbors.”
The landlord, Katie thought. “I didn’t realize anyone was moving in.”
“I don’t think he did, either. He about fell out of his chair when I said I’d take the place.” By then, she’d reached Katie’s porch and she held out her hand. “My friends call me Jo,” she said.
“Hi,” Katie said, taking it.
“Can you believe this weather? It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”
“It’s a beautiful morning,” Katie agreed, shifting from one foot to the other. “When did you move in?”
“Yesterday afternoon. And then, joy of joys, I pretty much spent all night sneezing. I think Benson collected as much dust as he possibly could and stored it at my place. You wouldn’t believe what it’s like in there.”
Katie nodded toward the door. “My place was the same way.”
“It doesn’t look like it. Sorry, I couldn’t help sneaking a glance through your windows when I was standing in my kitchen. Your place is bright and cheery. I, on the other hand, have rented a dusty, spider-filled dungeon.”
“Mr. Benson let me paint.”
“I’ll bet. As long as Mr. Benson doesn’t have to do it, I’ll bet he lets me paint, too. He gets a nice, clean place, and I get to do the work.” She gave a wry grin. “How long have you lived here?”
Katie crossed her arms, feeling the morning sun begin to warm her face. “Almost two months.”
“I’m not sure I can make it that long. If I keep sneezing like I did last night, my head will probably fall off before then.” She reached for her sunglasses and began wiping the lenses with her shirt. “How do you like Southport? It’s a different world, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here. I’d guess somewhere up north?”
After a moment, Katie nodded.
“That’s what I thought,” Jo went on. “And Southport takes awhile to get used to. I mean, I’ve always loved it, but I’m partial to small towns.”
“You’re from here?”
“I grew up here, went away, and ended up coming back. The oldest story in the book, right? Besides, you can’t find dusty places like this just anywhere.”
Katie smiled, and for a moment neither said anything. Jo seemed content to stand in front of her, waiting for her to make the next move. Katie took a sip of coffee, gazing off into the woods, and then remembered her manners.
“Would you like a cup of coffee? I just brewed a pot.”
Jo put the sunglasses back on her head, tucking them into her hair. “You know, I was hoping you’d say that. I’d love a cup of coffee. My entire kitchen is still in boxes and my car is in the shop. Do you have any idea what it’s like to face the day without caffeine?”
“I have an idea.”
“Well, just so you know, I’m a genuine coffee addict. Especially on any day that requires me to unpack. Did I mention I hate unpacking?”
“I don’t think you did.”
“It’s pretty much the most miserable thing there is. Trying to figure out where to put everything, banging your knees as you bump around the clutter. Don’t worry—I’m not the kind of neighbor who asks for that kind of help. But coffee, on the other hand…”
“Come on.” Katie waved her in. “Just keep in mind that most of the furniture came with the place.”
After crossing the kitchen, Katie pulled a cup from the cupboard and filled it to the brim. She handed it to Jo. “Sorry, I don’t have any cream or sugar.”
“Not necessary,” Jo said, taking the cup. She blew on the coffee before taking a sip. “Okay, it’s official,” she said. “As of now, you’re my best friend in the entire world. This is soooo good.”
“You’re welcome,” she said.
“So Benson said you work at Ivan’s?”
“I’m a waitress.”
“Is Big Dave still working there?” When Katie nodded, Jo went on. “He’s been there since before I was in high school. Does he still make up names for everyone?”
“Yes,” she said.
“How about Melody? Is she still talking about how cute the customers are?”
“And Ricky? Is he still hitting on new waitresses?”
When Katie nodded again, Jo laughed. “That place never changes.”
“Did you work there?”
“No, but it’s a small town and Ivan’s is an institution. Besides, the longer you live here, the more you’ll understand that there are no such things as secrets in this place. Everyone knows everyone’s business, and some people, like, let’s say… Melody… have raised gossip to an art form. It used to drive me crazy. Of course, half the people in Southport are the same way. There isn’t much to do around here but gossip.”
“But you came back.”
Jo shrugged. “Yeah, well. What can I say? Maybe I like the crazy.” She took another sip of her coffee and motioned out the window. “You know, as long as I’d lived here, I wasn’t even aware these two places existed.”
“The landlord said they were hunting cottages. They used to be part of the plantation before he turned them into rentals.”
Jo shook her head. “I can’t believe you moved out here.”
“You did, too,” Katie pointed out.
“Yes, but the only reason I considered it was because I knew I wouldn’t be the only woman at the end of a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. It’s kind of isolated.”
Which is why I was more than happy to rent it, Katie thought to herself. “It’s not so bad. I’m used to it by now.”
“I hope I get used to it,” she said. She blew on the coffee, cooling it off. “So what brought you to Southport? I’m sure it wasn’t the exciting career potential at Ivan’s. Do you have any family around here? Parents? Brothers or sisters?”
“No,” Katie said. “Just me.”
“Following a boyfriend?”
“So you just… moved here?”
“Why on earth would you do that?”
Katie didn’t answer. They were the same questions that Ivan and Melody and Ricky had asked. She knew there were no ulterior motives behind the questions, it was just natural curiosity, but even so, she was never quite sure what to say, other than to state the truth.
“I just wanted a place where I could start over.”
Jo took another sip of coffee, seemingly mulling over her answer, but surprising Katie, she asked no follow-up questions. Instead, she simply nodded.
“Makes sense to me. Sometimes starting over is exactly what a person needs. And I think it’s admirable. A lot of people don’t have the courage it takes to do something like that.”
“You think so?”
“I know so,” she said. “So, what’s on your agenda today? While I’m whining and unpacking and cleaning until my hands are raw.”
“I have to work later. But other than that, not much. I need to run to the store and pick up some things.”
“Are you going to visit Fisher’s or head into town?”
“I’m just going to Fisher’s,” she said.
“Have you met the owner there? The guy with gray hair?”
Katie nodded. “Once or twice.”
Jo finished her coffee and put the cup in the sink before sighing. “All right,” she said, sounding less than enthusiastic. “Enough procrastinating. If I don’t start now, I’m never going to finish. Wish me luck.”
Jo gave a little wave. “It was nice meeting you, Katie.”
From her kitchen window, Katie saw Jo shaking the rug she’d set aside earlier. She seemed friendly enough, but Katie wasn’t sure whether she was ready to have a neighbor. Although it might be nice to have someone to visit with now and then, she’d gotten used to being alone.
Then again, she knew that living in a small town meant that her self-imposed isolation couldn’t last forever. She had to work and shop and walk around town; some of the customers at the restaurant already recognized her. And besides, she had to admit she’d enjoyed chatting with Jo. For some reason, she felt that there was more to Jo than met the eye, something… trustworthy, even if she couldn’t explain it. She was also a single woman, which was a definite plus. Katie didn’t want to imagine how she would have reacted had a man moved in next door, and she wondered why she’d never even considered the possibility.
Over by the sink, she washed out the coffee cups then put them back into the cupboard. The act was so familiar—putting two cups away after coffee in the morning—and for an instant, she felt engulfed by the life she’d left behind. Her hands began to tremble, and pressing them together she took a few deep breaths until they finally stilled. Two months ago, she wouldn’t have been able to do that; even two weeks ago, there had been little she could do to stop it. While she was glad that these bouts of anxiety no longer overwhelmed her, it also meant she was getting comfortable here, and that scared her. Because being comfortable meant she might lower her guard, and she could never let that happen.
Even so, she was grateful to have ended up in Southport. It was a small historic town of a few thousand people, located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, right where it met the Intracoastal. It was a place with sidewalks and shade trees and flowers that bloomed in the sandy soil. Spanish moss hung from the tree branches, while kudzu climbed the wizened trunks. She had watched kids riding their bikes and playing kick ball in the streets, and had marveled at the number of churches, one on nearly every corner. Crickets and frogs sounded in the evening, and she thought again that this place had felt right, even from the beginning. It felt safe, as if it had somehow been beckoning to her all along, promising sanctuary.
Katie slipped on her only pair of shoes, a pair of beat-up Converse sneakers. The chest of drawers stood largely empty and there was almost no food in the kitchen, but as she stepped out of the house and into the sunshine and headed toward the store, she thought to herself, This is home. Drawing in a deeply scented breath of hyacinth and fresh-cut grass, she knew she hadn’t been happier in years.
His hair had turned gray when he was in his early twenties, prompting some good-natured ribbing from his friends. It hadn’t been a slow change, either, a few hairs here and there gradually turning to silver. Rather, in January he’d had a head of black hair and by the following January, there was scarcely a single black hair left. His two older brothers had been spared, though in the last couple of years, they’d picked up some silver in their sideburns. Neither his mom nor his dad could explain it; as far as they knew, Alex Wheatley was an anomaly on both sides of the family.
Strangely, it hadn’t bothered him. In the army, he sometimes suspected that it had aided in his advancement. He’d been with Criminal Investigation Division, or CID, stationed in Germany and Georgia, and had spent ten years investigating military crimes, everything from soldiers going AWOL, to burglary, domestic abuse, rape, and even murder. He’d been promoted regularly, finally retiring as a major at thirty-two.
After punching his ticket and ending his career with the military, he moved to Southport, his wife’s hometown. He was newly married with his first child on the way, and though his immediate thought was that he would apply for a job in law enforcement, his father-in-law had offered to sell him the family business.
It was an old-fashioned country store, with white clapboard siding, blue shutters, a sloped porch roof, and a bench out front, the kind of store that enjoyed its heyday long ago and had mostly disappeared. The living quarters were on the second floor. A massive magnolia tree shaded one side of the building, and an oak tree stood out front. Only half of the parking lot was asphalt—the other half was gravel—but the lot was seldom empty. His father-in-law had started the business before Carly was born, when there wasn’t much more than farmland surrounding him. But his father-in-law prided himself on understanding people, and he wanted to stock whatever they happened to need, all of which lent a cluttered organization to the place. Alex felt the same way and kept the store largely the same. Five or six aisles offered groceries and toiletries, refrigerator cases in the back overflowed with everything from soda and water to beer and wine, and as in every other convenience store, this one had racks of chips, candy, and the kind of junk food that people grabbed as they stood near the cash register. But that’s where the similarity ended. There was also assorted fishing gear along the shelves, fresh bait, and a grill manned by Roger Thompson, who’d once worked on Wall Street and had moved to Southport in search of a simpler life. The grill offered burgers, sandwiches, and hot dogs as well as a place to sit. There were DVDs for rent, various kinds of ammunition, rain jackets and umbrellas, and a small offering of bestselling and classic novels. The store sold spark plugs, fan belts, and gas cans, and Alex was able to make duplicates of keys with a machine in the back room. He had three gasoline pumps, and another pump on the dock for any boats that needed to fill up, the only place to do so aside from the marina. Rows of dill pickles, boiled peanuts, and baskets of fresh vegetables sat near the counter.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard to keep up with the inventory. Some items moved regularly, others didn’t. Like his father-in-law, Alex had a pretty good sense of what people needed as soon as they walked in the store. He’d always noticed and remembered things that other people didn’t, a trait that had helped him immeasurably in his years working CID. Nowadays he was endlessly tinkering with the items he stocked, in an attempt to keep up with the changing tastes of his customers.
Never in his life had he imagined doing something like this, but it had been a good decision, if only because it allowed him to keep an eye on the kids. Josh was in school, but Kristen wouldn’t start until the fall, and she spent her days with him in the store. He’d set up a play area behind the register, where his bright and talkative daughter seemed most happy. Though only five, she knew how to work the register and make change, using a step stool to reach the buttons. Alex always enjoyed the expressions on strangers’ faces when she started to ring them up.
Still, it wasn’t an ideal childhood for her, even if she didn’t know anything different. When he was honest with himself, he had to admit that taking care of kids and the store took all the energy he had. Sometimes, he felt as though he could barely keep up—making Josh’s lunch and dropping him off at school, ordering from his suppliers, meeting with vendors, and serving the customers, all while keeping Kristen entertained. And that was just for starters. The evenings, he sometimes thought, were even busier. He tried his best to spend time doing kid things with them—going on bike rides, flying kites, and fishing with Josh, but Kristen liked to play with dolls and do arts and crafts, and he’d never been good at those things. Add in making dinner and cleaning the house, and half the time, it was all he could do to keep his head above water. Even when he finally got the kids in bed, he found it nearly impossible to relax because there was always something else to do. He wasn’t sure if he even knew how to relax anymore.
After the kids went to bed, he spent the rest of his evenings alone. Though he seemed to know most everyone in town, he had few real friends. The couples that he and Carly sometimes visited for barbecues or dinners had slowly but surely drifted away. Part of that was his own fault—working at the store and raising his kids took most of his time—but sometimes he got the sense that he made them uncomfortable, as if reminding them that life was unpredictable and scary and that things could go bad in an instant.
It was a wearying and sometimes isolating lifestyle, but he remained focused on Josh and Kristen. Though less frequent than it once had been, both of them had been prone to nightmares with Carly gone. When they woke in the middle of the night, sobbing inconsolably, he would hold them in his arms and whisper that everything was going to be all right, until they were finally able to fall back asleep. Early on, all of them had seen a counselor; the kids had drawn pictures and talked about their feelings. It hadn’t seemed to help as much as he’d hoped it would. Their nightmares continued for almost a year. Once in a while, when he colored with Kristen or fished with Josh, they’d grow quiet and he knew they were missing their mom. Kristen sometimes said as much in a babyish, trembling voice, while tears ran down her cheeks. When that happened, he was sure he could hear his heart breaking, because he knew there was nothing he could do or say to make things any better. The counselor had assured him that kids were resilient and that as long as they knew they were loved, the nightmares would eventually stop and the tears would become less frequent. Time proved the counselor right, but now Alex faced another form of loss, one that left him equally heartbroken. The kids were getting better, he knew, because their memories of their mom were slowly but surely fading away. They’d been so young when they’d lost her—four and three—and it meant that the day would come when their mother would become more an idea than a person to them. It was inevitable, of course, but somehow it didn’t seem right to Alex that they would never remember the sound of Carly’s laughter, or the tender way she’d held them as infants, or know how deeply she’d once loved them.
He’d never been much of a photographer. Carly had always been the one who reached for the camera, and consequently, there were dozens of photographs of him with the kids. There were only a few that included Carly, and though he made it a point to page through the album with Josh and Kristen while he told them about their mother, he suspected that the stories were becoming just that: stories. The emotions attached to them were like sand castles in the tide, slowly washing out to sea. The same thing was happening with the portrait of Carly that hung in his bedroom. In their first year of marriage, he’d arranged to have her portrait taken, despite her protests. He was glad for that. In the photo, she looked beautiful and independent, the strong-willed woman who’d captured his heart, and at night, after the kids were in bed, he would sometimes stare at his wife’s image, his emotions in turmoil. But Josh and Kristen barely noticed the photo at all.
He thought of her often, and he missed the companionship they’d once shared and the friendship that had been the bedrock of their marriage at its best. And when he was honest with himself, he knew he wanted those things again. He was lonely, even though it bothered him to admit it. For months after they lost her, he simply couldn’t imagine ever being in another relationship, let alone consider the possibility of loving someone again. Even after a year, it was the kind of thought he would force from his mind. The pain was too fresh, the memory of the aftermath too raw. But a few months ago, he’d taken the kids to the aquarium and as they’d stood in front of the shark tank, he’d struck up a conversation with an attractive woman standing next to him. Like him, she’d brought her kids, and like him, she wore no ring on her finger. Her children were the same ages as Josh and Kristen, and while the four of them were off pointing at the fish, she’d laughed at something he’d said and he’d felt a spark of attraction, reminding him of what he had once had. The conversation eventually came to an end and they went their separate ways, but on the way out, he’d seen her once more. She’d waved at him and there’d been an instant when he contemplated jogging over to her car and asking for her phone number. But he didn’t, and a moment later, she was pulling out of the parking lot. He never saw her again.
That night, he waited for the wave of self-reproach and regret to come, but strangely, it didn’t. Nor did it feel wrong. Instead, it felt… okay. Not affirming, not exhilarating, but okay, and he somehow knew it meant he was finally beginning to heal. That didn’t mean, of course, that he was ready to rush headlong into the single life. If it happened, it happened. And if it didn’t? He figured he’d cross that bridge when he came to it. He was willing to wait until he met the right person, someone who not only brought joy back into his life, but who loved his kids as much as he did. He recognized, however, that in this town, the odds of finding that person were tiny. Southport was too small. Nearly everyone he knew was either married or retired or attending one of the local schools. There weren’t a lot of single women around, let alone women who wanted a package deal, kids included. And that, of course, was the deal breaker. He might be lonely, he might want companionship, but he wasn’t about to sacrifice his kids to get it. They’d been through enough and would always be his first priority.
Still… there was one possibility, he supposed. Another woman interested him, though he knew almost nothing about her, aside from the fact that she was single. She’d been coming to the store once or twice a week since early March. The first time he’d seen her, she was pale and gaunt, almost desperately thin. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have given her a second glance. People passing through town often stopped at the store for sodas or gasoline or junk food; he seldom saw such people again. But she wanted none of those things; instead, she kept her head down as she walked toward the grocery aisles, as if trying to remain unseen, a ghost in human form. Unfortunately for her, it wasn’t working. She was too attractive to go unnoticed. She was in her late twenties, he guessed, with brown hair cut a little unevenly above her shoulder. She wore no makeup and her high cheekbones and round, wide-set eyes gave her an elegant if slightly fragile appearance.
At the register, he realized that up close she was even prettier than she’d been from a distance. Her eyes were a greenish-hazel color and flecked with gold, and her brief, distracted smile vanished as quickly as it had come. On the counter, she placed nothing but staples: coffee, rice, oatmeal, pasta, peanut butter, and toiletries. He sensed that conversation would make her uncomfortable so he began to ring her up in silence. As he did, he heard her voice for the first time.
“Do you have any dry beans?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” he’d answered. “I don’t normally keep those in stock.”
As he bagged her items after his answer, he noticed her staring out the window, absently chewing her lower lip. For some reason, he had the strange impression that she was about to cry.
He cleared his throat. “If it’s something you’re going to need regularly, I’d be happy to stock them. I just need to know what kind you want.”
“I don’t want to bother you.” When she answered, her voice barely registered above a whisper.
She paid him in small bills, and after taking the bag, she left the store. Surprising him, she kept walking out of the lot, and it was only then he realized she hadn’t driven, which only added to his curiosity.
The following week, there were dry beans in the store. He’d stocked three types: pinto, kidney, and lima, though only a single bag of each, and the next time she came in, he made a point of mentioning that they could be found on the bottom shelf in the corner, near the rice. Bringing all three bags to the register, she’d asked him if he happened to have an onion. He pointed to a small bag he kept in a bushel basket near the door, but she’d shaken her head. “I only need one,” she murmured, her smile hesitant and apologetic. Her hands shook as she counted out her bills, and again, she left on foot.
Since then, the beans were always in stock, there was a single onion available, and in the weeks that followed her first two visits to the store, she’d become something of a regular. Though still quiet, she seemed less fragile, less nervous, as time had gone on. The dark circles under her eyes were gradually fading, and she’d picked up some color during the recent spate of good weather. She’d put on some weight—not much, but enough to soften her delicate features. Her voice was stronger, too, and though it didn’t signal any interest in him, she could hold his gaze a little longer before finally turning away. They hadn’t proceeded much beyond the Did you find everything you needed? followed by the Yes, I did. Thank you type of conversation, but instead of fleeing the store like a hunted deer, she sometimes wandered the aisles a bit, and had even begun to talk to Kristen when the two of them were alone. It was the first time he’d seen the woman’s defenses drop. Her easy demeanor and open expression spoke of an affection for children, and his first thought was that he’d glimpsed the woman she once had been and could be again, given the right circumstances. Kristen, too, seemed to notice something different about the woman, because after she left, Kristen had told him that she’d made a new friend and that her name was Miss Katie.
That didn’t mean, however, that Katie was comfortable with him. Last week, after she’d chatted easily with Kristen, he’d seen her reading the back covers of the novels he kept in stock. She didn’t buy any of the titles, and when he offhandedly asked as she was checking out if she had a favorite author, he’d seen a flash of the old nervousness. He was struck by the notion that he shouldn’t have let slip that he’d been watching her. “Never mind,” he added quickly. “It’s not important.” On her way out the door, however, she’d paused for a moment, her bag tucked in the crook of her arm. She half-turned in his direction and mumbled, I like Dickens. With that, she opened the door and was gone, walking up the road.
He’d thought about her with greater frequency since then, but they were vague thoughts, edged with mystery and colored by the knowledge that he wanted to get to know her better. Not that he knew how to go about it. Aside from the year he courted Carly, he’d never been good at dating. In college, between swimming and his classes, he had little time to go out. In the military, he’d thrown himself into his career, working long hours and transferring from post to post with every promotion. While he’d gone out with a few women, they were fleeting romances that for the most part began and ended in the bedroom. Sometimes, when thinking back on his life, he barely recognized the man he used to be, and Carly, he knew, was responsible for those changes. Yes, it was sometimes hard, and yes, he was lonely. He missed his wife, and though he never told anyone, there were still moments when he could swear he felt her presence nearby, watching over him, trying to make sure he was going to be all right.
Because of the glorious weather, the store was busier than usual for a Sunday. By the time Alex unlocked the door at seven, there were already three boats tied at the dock waiting for the pump to be turned on. As was typical, while paying for the gas, the boat owners loaded up on snacks and drinks and bags of ice to stow in their boats. Roger—who was working the grill, as always—hadn’t had a break since he’d put on his apron, and the tables were crowded with people eating sausage biscuits and cheeseburgers and asking for tips about the stock market.
Usually, Alex worked the register until noon, when he would hand over the reins to Joyce, who, like Roger, was the kind of employee who made running the store much less challenging than it could be. Joyce, who’d worked in the courthouse until her retirement, had “come with the business,” so to speak. His father-in-law had hired her ten years ago and now, in her seventies, she hadn’t showed any signs of slowing down. Her husband had died years earlier, her kids had moved away, and she viewed the customers as her de facto family. Joyce was as intrinsic to the store as the items on the shelves.
Even better, she understood that Alex needed to spend time with his children away from the store, and she didn’t get bent out of shape by having to work on Sundays. As soon as she showed up, she’d slip behind the register and tell Alex he could go, sounding more like the boss than an employee. Joyce was also his babysitter, the only one he trusted to stay with the kids if he had to go out of town. That wasn’t common—it had happened only twice in the past couple of years when he’d met up with an old army buddy in Raleigh—but he’d come to view Joyce as one of the best things in his life. When he’d needed her most, she’d always been there for him.
Waiting for Joyce’s arrival, Alex walked through the store, checking the shelves. The computer system was great at tracking inventory, but he knew that rows of numbers didn’t always tell the whole story. Sometimes, he felt he got a better sense by actually scanning the shelves to see what had sold the day before. A successful store required turning over the inventory as frequently as possible, and that meant that he sometimes had to offer items that no other stores offered. He carried homemade jams and jellies; powdered rubs from “secret recipes” that flavored beef and pork; and a selection of locally canned fruits and vegetables. Even people who regularly shopped at the Food Lion or Piggly Wiggly often dropped by on their way home from the store to pick up the local specialty items Alex made a point of stocking.
Even more important than an item’s sales volume, he liked to know when it sold, a fact that didn’t necessarily show up in the numbers. He’d learned, for instance, that hot dog buns sold especially well on the weekends but only rarely during the week; regular loaves of bread were just the opposite. Noting that, he’d been able to keep more of both in stock when they were needed, and sales rose. It wasn’t much but it added up and enabled Alex to keep his small business afloat when the chain stores were putting most local shops out of business.
As he perused the shelves, he wondered idly what he was going to do with the kids in the afternoon and decided to take them for a bike ride. Carly had loved nothing more than strapping them into the bike stroller and hauling them all over town. But a bike ride wasn’t enough to fill the entire afternoon. Maybe they could ride their bikes to the park… they might enjoy that.
With a quick peek toward the front door to make sure no one was coming in, he hurried through the rear storeroom and poked his head out. Josh was fishing off the dock, which was far and away his favorite thing to do. Alex didn’t like the fact that Josh was out there alone—he had no doubt that some people would regard him as a bad father for allowing it—but Josh always stayed within visual range of the video monitor behind the register. It was a rule, and Josh had always adhered to it. Kristen, as usual, was sitting at her table in the corner behind the register. She’d separated her American Girl doll clothing into different piles, and she seemed content to change her doll from one outfit to the next. Each time she finished, she would look up at him with a bright, innocent expression and ask her daddy how he thought her doll looked now, as if it were possible he would ever say he didn’t like it.
Little girls. They could melt the toughest hearts.
Alex was straightening some of the condiments when he heard the bell on the front door jingle. Raising his head over the aisle, he saw Katie enter the store.
“Hi, Miss Katie,” Kristen called out, popping up from behind the register. “How do you think my doll looks?”
From where he was standing, he could barely see Kristen’s head above the counter, but she was holding… Vanessa? Rebecca? Whatever the doll with brown hair was called, high enough for Katie to notice.
“She’s beautiful, Kristen,” Katie answered. “Is that a new dress?”
“No, I’ve had it for a while. But she hasn’t worn it lately.”
“What’s her name?”
“Vanessa,” she said.
Vanessa, Alex thought. When he complimented Vanessa later, he would sound like a much more attentive father.
“Did you name her?”
“No, she came with the name. Can you help me get her boots on, though? I can’t get them on all the way.”
Alex watched as Kristen handed Katie the doll and she began to work on the soft plastic boots. From his own experience, Alex knew it was harder than it looked. There wasn’t a chance a little girl could somehow muscle them on. He had trouble putting them on, but somehow Katie made it seem easy. She handed the doll back and asked, “How’s that?”
“Perfect,” Kristen said. “Do you think I should put a coat on her?”
“It’s not that cold out.”
“I know. But Vanessa gets cold sometimes. I think she needs one.” Kristen’s head vanished behind the counter and then popped up again. “Which one do you think? Blue or purple?”
Katie brought a finger to her mouth, her expression serious. “I think purple might be good.”
Kristen nodded. “That’s what I think, too. Thanks.”
Katie smiled before turning away, and Alex focused his attention on the shelves before she caught him staring. He moved jars of mustard and relish toward the front of the shelf. From the corner of his eye, he saw Katie scoop up a small shopping basket before moving toward a different aisle.
Alex headed back to the register. When she saw him, he offered a friendly wave. “Good morning,” he said.
“Hi.” She tried to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear, but it was too short to catch. “I just have to pick up a few things.”
“Let me know if you can’t find what you need. Sometimes things get moved around.”
She nodded before continuing down the aisle. As Alex stepped behind the register, he glanced at the video screen. Josh was fishing in the same spot, while a boat was slowly docking.
“What do you think, Daddy?” Kristen tugged on his pant leg as she held up the doll.
“Wow! She looks beautiful.” Alex squatted down next to her. “And I love the coat. Vanessa gets cold sometimes, right?”
“Yup,” Kristen said. “But she told me she wants to go on the swings, so she’s probably going to change.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Alex said. “Maybe we can all go to the park later? If you want to swing, too.”
“I don’t want to swing. Vanessa does. And it’s all pretend, anyway, Daddy.”
“Oh,” he said, “okay.” He stood again. Scratch going to the park, he thought.
Lost in her own world, Kristen began to undress the doll again. Alex checked on Josh in the monitor just as a teenager entered the store, wearing nothing but board shorts. He handed over a wad of cash.
“For the pump at the dock,” he said before dashing out again.
Alex rang him up and set the pump as Katie walked to the register. Same items as always, with the addition of a tube of sunscreen. When she peeked over the counter at Kristen, Alex noticed the changeable color of her eyes.
“Did you find everything you needed?”
“Yes, thank you.”
He began loading her bag. “My favorite Dickens novel is Great Expectations,” he said. He tried to sound friendly as he put the items in her bag. “Which one is your favorite?”
Instead of answering right away, she seemed startled that he remembered that she’d told him she liked Dickens.
“A Tale of Two Cities,” she answered, her voice soft.
“I like that one, too. But it’s sad.”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s why I like it.”
Since he knew she’d be walking, he double-bagged the groceries.
“I figured that since you’ve already met my daughter, I should probably introduce myself. I’m Alex,” he said. “Alex Wheatley.”
“Her name is Miss Katie,” Kristen chirped from behind him. “But I already told you that, remember?” Alex glanced over his shoulder at her. When he turned back, Katie was smiling as she handed the money to him.
“Just Katie,” she said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Katie.” He tapped the keys and the register drawer opened with a ring. “I take it you live around here?”
She never got around to answering. Instead, when he looked up, he saw that her eyes had gone wide in fright. Swiveling around he saw what she’d caught on the monitor behind him: Josh in the water, fully clothed and arms flailing, in panic. Alex felt his throat suddenly close and he moved on instinct, rushing out from behind the counter and racing through the store and into the storeroom. Bursting through the door, he knocked over a case of paper towels, sending it flying, but he didn’t slow down.
He flung open the back door, adrenaline surging through his system as he hurdled a row of bushes, taking a shortcut to the dock. He hit the wooden planks at full speed. As he launched himself from the dock, Alex could see Josh choking in the water, his arms thrashing.
His heart slamming against his rib cage, Alex sailed through the air, hitting the water only a couple of feet from Josh. The water wasn’t deep—maybe six feet or so—and as he touched the soft, unsettled mud of the bottom, he sank up to his shins. He fought his way to the surface, feeling the strain in his arms as he reached for Josh.
“I’ve got you!” he shouted. “I’ve got you!”
But Josh was struggling and coughing, unable to catch his breath, and Alex fought to control him as he pulled him into shallower water. Then, with an enormous heave, he carried Josh up onto the grassy bank, his mind racing through options: CPR, stomach pumping, assisted breathing. He tried to lay Josh down, but Josh resisted. He was struggling and coughing, and though Alex could still feel the panic in his own system, he had enough presence of mind to know that it probably meant that Josh was going to be okay.
He didn’t know how long it took—probably only a few seconds, but it felt a lot longer—until Josh finally gave a rattling cough, emitting a spray of water, and for the first time was able to catch his breath. He inhaled sharply and coughed again, then inhaled and coughed again, though this time it settled into something that sounded like he was clearing his throat. He drew a few long breaths, still panic-stricken, and only then did the boy seem to realize what had happened.
He reached for his dad and Alex folded him tightly in his arms. Josh began to cry, his shoulders shuddering, and Alex felt sick to his stomach at the thought of what might have been. What would have happened had he not noticed Katie staring at the monitor? What if another minute had passed? The answers to those questions left him shaking as badly as Josh.
In time, Josh’s cries began to slow and he uttered the first words since Alex had pulled him from the water.
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” he choked out.
“I’m sorry, too,” Alex whispered in return, and still, he held on to his son, afraid that somehow, if he let go, time would start to run backward, but this time, the outcome would be different.
When he was finally able to loosen his hold on Josh, Alex found himself gazing at a crowd behind the store. Roger was there, as were the customers who’d been eating. Another pair of customers craned their necks, probably just having arrived. And of course, Kristen was there, too. Suddenly he felt like a terrible parent again, because he saw that his little girl was crying and afraid and needed him, too, even though she was nestled in Katie’s arms.
It wasn’t until both Josh and Alex had changed into dry clothes that Alex was able to piece together what had happened. Roger had cooked both kids hamburgers and fries, and they were all sitting at a table in the grill area, though neither of them showed any interest in eating.
“My fishing line got snagged on the boat as it was pulling out, and I didn’t want to lose my fishing rod. I thought the line would snap right away but it pulled me in and I swallowed a bunch of water. Then I couldn’t breathe and it felt like something was holding me down.” Josh hesitated. “I think I dropped my rod in the river.”
Kristen was sitting beside him, her eyes still red and puffy. She’d asked Katie to stay with her for a while, and Katie had remained at her side, holding her hand even now.
“It’s okay. I’ll head out there in a little while and if I can’t find it, I’ll get you a new one. But next time, just let go, okay?”
Josh sniffed and nodded. “I’m really sorry,” he said.
“It was an accident,” Alex assured him.
“But now you won’t let me go fishing.”
And risk losing him again? Alex thought. Not a chance. “We’ll talk about that later, okay?” Alex said instead.
“What if I promise to let go the next time?”
“Like I said, we’ll talk about it later. For now, why don’t you eat something?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I know. But it’s lunchtime and you’ve got to eat.”
Josh reached for a French fry and took a small bite, chewing mechanically. Kristen did the same. At the table, she almost always mimicked Josh. It drove Josh crazy, but he didn’t seem to have the energy right now to protest.
Alex turned to Katie. He swallowed, feeling suddenly nervous. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
She stood up from the table and he led her away from the kids. When they were far enough away that he was sure they wouldn’t hear, he cleared his throat. “I want to thank you for what you did.”
“I didn’t do anything,” she protested.
“Yes,” he said. “You did. Had you not been looking at the monitor, I wouldn’t have known what was happening. I might not have reached him in time.” He paused. “And also, thank you for taking care of Kristen. She’s the sweetest thing in the world, but she’s sensitive. I’m glad you didn’t leave her alone. Even when we had to go up and change.”
“I did what anyone would do,” Katie insisted. In the silence that followed, she suddenly seemed to realize how close they were standing and took a half step backward. “I should really be going.”
“Wait,” Alex said. He walked toward the refrigerated cases at the rear of the store. “Do you like wine?”
She shook her head. “Sometimes, but—”
Before she could finish, he turned around and opened the case. He reached up and pulled out a bottle of chardonnay.
“Please,” he said, “I want you to have it. It’s actually a very good wine. I know you wouldn’t think you could get a good bottle of wine here, but when I was in the army, I had a friend who introduced me to wine. He’s kind of an amateur expert, and he’s the one who picks what I stock. You’ll enjoy it.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“It’s the least I can do.” He smiled. “As a way to say thank you.”
For the first time since they’d met, she held his gaze. “Okay,” she finally said.
After gathering her groceries, she left the store. Alex returned to the table. With a bit more cajoling, Josh and Kristen finished their lunches, while Alex went to the dock to retrieve the fishing pole. By the time he got back, Joyce was already slipping on her apron, and Alex took the kids for a bike ride. Afterward, he drove them to Wilmington, where they saw a movie and had pizza, the old standbys when it came to spending time with kids. The sun was down and they were tired when they got home, so they showered and put on their pajamas. He lay in bed between them for an hour, reading stories, before finally turning out the lights.
In the living room, he turned on the television and flipped through the channels for a while, but he wasn’t in the mood to watch. Instead, he thought about Josh again, and though he knew that his son was safe upstairs, he felt a ripple of the same fear he’d felt earlier, the same sense of failure. He was doing the best he could and no one could love their kids more than he did, but he couldn’t help feeling that somehow it wasn’t enough.
Later, long after Josh and Kristen had fallen asleep, he went to the kitchen and pulled out a beer from the refrigerator. He nursed it as he sat on the couch. The memories of the day played in his mind, but this time, his thoughts were of his daughter and the way she’d clung to Katie, her little face buried in Katie’s neck.
The last time he’d seen that, he reflected, was when Carly had been alive.
April gave way to May and the days continued to pass. The restaurant got steadily busier and the stash of money in Katie’s coffee can grew reassuringly thick. Katie no longer panicked at the thought that she lacked the means to leave this place if she had to.
Even after paying her rent and utilities, along with food, she had extra money for the first time in years. Not a lot, but enough to make her feel light and free. On Friday morning, she stopped at Anna Jean’s, a thrift shop that specialized in second-hand clothes. It took most of the morning to sift through all the clothing, but in the end, she bought two pairs of shoes, a couple of pairs of pants, shorts, three stylish T-shirts, and a few blouses, most of which were name brands of one sort or another and looked almost new. It amazed Katie to think that some women had so many nice clothes that they could donate what would probably cost a small fortune in a department store.
Jo was hanging a wind chime when Katie got home. Since that first meeting, they hadn’t talked much. Jo’s job, whatever it was, seemed to keep her busy and Katie was working as many shifts as she could. At night, she’d notice that Jo’s lights were on, but it was too late for her to drop by, and Jo hadn’t been there the previous weekend.
“Long time, no talk,” Jo said with a wave. She tapped the wind chime, making it ding before crossing the yard.
Katie reached the porch and put the bags down. “Where’ve you been?”
Jo shrugged. “You know how it goes. Late nights, early mornings, going here and there. Half the time, I feel like I’m being pulled in every direction.” She motioned to the rockers. “You mind? I need a break. I’ve been cleaning all morning and I just hung that thing. I like the sound, you know.”
“Go ahead,” Katie said.
Jo sat and rolled her shoulders, working out the kinks. “You’ve been getting some sun,” she commented. “Did you go to the beach?”
“No,” Katie said. She scooted one of the bags aside to make room for her foot. “I picked up some extra day shifts the past couple of weeks and I worked outside on the deck.”
“Sun, water… what else is there? Working at Ivan’s must be like being on vacation.”
Katie laughed. “Not quite. But how about you?”
“No sun, no fun for me these days.” She nodded toward the bags. “I wanted to drop by and mooch a cup of coffee this morning, but you were already gone.”
“I went shopping.”
“I can tell. Did you find anything you liked?”
“I think so,” Katie confessed.
“Well, don’t just sit there, show me what you bought.”
“Are you sure?”
Jo laughed. “I live in a cottage at the end of a gravel road in the middle of nowhere and I’ve been washing cabinets all morning. What else do I have to excite me?”
Katie pulled out a pair of jeans and handed them over. Jo held them up, turning them from front to back. “Wow!” she said. “You must have found these at Anna Jean’s. I love that place.”
“How did you know I went to Anna Jean’s?”
“Because it’s not like any of the stores around here sell things this nice. This came from someone’s closet. A rich woman’s closet. A lot of the stuff is practically new.” Lowering the jeans, Jo ran her finger over the stitching on the pockets. “These are great. I love the designs!” She peeked toward the bag. “What else did you get?”
Katie handed over the items one by one, listening as Jo raved about every piece. When the bag was empty, Jo sighed. “Okay, it’s official. I’m jealous. And let me guess, there’s nothing like any of this left in the store, is there?”
Katie shrugged, feeling suddenly sheepish. “Sorry,” she said. “I was there for a while.”
“Well, good for you. These are treasures.”
Katie nodded toward Jo’s house. “How’s it coming over there?” she asked. “Have you started painting?”
“Too busy at work?”
Jo made a face. “The truth is, after I got the unpacking done and I cleaned the place from top to bottom, I sort of ran out of energy. It’s a good thing you’re my friend, since that means I can still come over here where it’s bright and cheery.”
“You’re welcome anytime.”
“Thanks. I appreciate that. But evil Mr. Benson is going to deliver some cans of paint tomorrow. Which also explains why I’m here. I’m dreading the very idea of spending my entire weekend covered in splatter.”
“It’s not so bad. It goes fast.”
“Do you see these hands?” Jo said, holding them up. “These were made for caressing handsome men and meant to be adorned with pretty nails and diamond rings. They’re not made for paint rollers and paint splatter and that kind of manual labor.”
Katie giggled. “Do you want me to come over and help?”
“Absolutely not. I’m an expert in procrastination, but the last thing I want you to think is that I’m incompetent, too. Because I’m actually pretty good at what I do.”
A flock of starlings broke from the trees, moving in an almost musical rhythm. The motion of the rockers was making the porch creak slightly.
“What do you do?” Katie asked.
“I’m a counselor of sorts.”
“For the high school?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I’m a grief counselor.”
“Oh,” Katie said. She paused. “I’m not sure what that is.”
Jo shrugged. “I visit with people and try to help them. Usually, it’s because someone close to them has died.” She paused, and when she went on, her voice was softer. “People react in a lot of different ways and it’s up to me to figure out how to help them accept what happened—and I hate that word, by the way, since I’ve yet to meet anyone who wants to accept it—but that’s pretty much what I’m supposed to do. Because in the end, and no matter how hard it is, acceptance helps people move on with the rest of their lives. But sometimes…”
She trailed off. In the silence, she scratched at a piece of flaking paint on the rocker. “Sometimes, when I’m with someone, other issues come up. That’s what I’ve been dealing with lately. Because sometimes people need help in other ways, too.”
“That sounds rewarding.”
“It is. Even if it has challenges.” She turned toward Katie. “But what about you?”
“You know I work at Ivan’s.”
“But you haven’t told me anything else about yourself.”
“There’s not much to tell,” Katie protested, hoping to deflect the line of questioning.
“Of course there is. Everyone has a story.” She paused. “For instance, what really brought you to Southport?”
“I already told you,” Katie said. “I wanted to start over.”
Jo seemed to stare right through her as she studied the answer. “Okay,” she finally said, her tone light. “You’re right. It’s not my business.”
“That’s not what I said…”
“Yes, you did. You just said it in a nice way. And I respect your answer because you’re right; it isn’t my business. But just so you know, when you say you wanted to start over, the counselor in me wonders why you felt the need to start over. And more important, what you left behind.”
Katie felt her shoulders tense. Sensing her discomfort, Jo went on.
“How about this?” she asked gently. “Forget I even asked the question. Just know that if you ever want to talk, I’m here, okay? I’m good at listening. Especially with friends. And believe it or not, sometimes talking helps.”
“What if I can’t talk about it?” Katie said in an involuntary whisper.
“Then how about this? Ignore the fact that I’m a counselor. We’re just friends, and friends can talk about anything. Like where you were born or something that made you happy as a kid.”
“Why is that important?”
“It isn’t. And that’s the point. You don’t have to say anything at all that you don’t want to say.”
Katie absorbed her words before squinting at Jo. “You’re very good at your job, aren’t you?”
“I try,” Jo conceded.
Katie laced her fingers together in her lap. “All right. I was born in Altoona,” she said.
Jo leaned back in her rocking chair. “I’ve never been there. Is it nice?”
“It’s one of those old railroad towns,” she said, “you know the kind. A town filled with good, hardworking people who are just trying to make a better life for themselves. And it was pretty, too, especially in the fall, when the leaves began to change. I used to think there was no place more beautiful in the world.” She lowered her eyes, half lost in memories. “I used to have a friend named Emily, and together we’d lay pennies on the railroad tracks. After the train went past, we’d scramble around trying to find them, and when we did, we’d always marvel at how any trace of engraving would be completely gone. Sometimes the pennies were still hot. I remember almost burning my fingers one time. When I think back on my childhood, it’s mostly about small pleasures like that.”
Katie shrugged, but Jo remained silent, willing her to go on.
“Anyway, that’s where I went to school. All the way through. I ended up graduating from high school there, but by then, I don’t know… I guess I was tired of… all of it, you know? Small-town life, where every weekend was the same. The same people going to the same parties, the same boys drinking beer in the beds of their pickup trucks. I wanted something more, but college didn’t work out and, long story short, I ended up in Atlantic City. I worked there for a while, moved around a bit, and now, years later, here I am.”
“In another small town where everything stays the same.”
Katie shook her head. “It’s different here. It makes me feel…”
When she hesitated, Jo finished the thought for her.
When Katie’s startled gaze met hers, Jo seemed bemused. “It’s not that hard to figure out. Like you said, you’re starting over and what better place to start over than a place like this? Where nothing ever happens?” She paused. “Well, that’s not quite true. I heard there was a little excitement a couple of weeks back. When you dropped by the store?”
“You heard about that?”
“It’s a small town. It’s impossible not to hear about it. What happened?”
“It was scary. One minute, I was talking to Alex, and when I saw what was happening on the monitor, I guess he noticed my expression because in the next instant, he was racing past me. He moved through that store like lightning, and then Kristen saw the monitor and started to panic. I scooped her up and followed her dad. By the time I got out there, Alex was already out of the water with Josh. I’m just glad he was okay.”
“Me, too.” Jo nodded. “What do you think of Kristen? Isn’t she just the sweetest thing?”
“She calls me Miss Katie.”
“I love that little girl,” Jo said, drawing her knees up to her chest. “But it doesn’t surprise me that the two of you get along. Or that she reached for you when she was scared.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because she’s a perceptive little thing. She knows you’ve got a good heart.”
Katie made a skeptical face. “Maybe she was just scared about her brother, and when her dad took off I was the only one there.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Like I said, she’s perceptive.” Jo pressed on. “How was Alex? Afterward, I mean?”
“He was still shaken up, but other than that, he seemed all right.”
“Have you talked to him much since then?”
Katie gave a noncommittal shrug. “Not too much. He’s always nice when I come into the store, and he stocks what I need, but that’s about it.”
“He’s good about things like that,” Jo said with assurance.
“You sound like you know him pretty well.”
Jo rocked a little in her chair. “I think I do.”
Katie waited for more, but Jo was silent.
“You want to talk about it?” Katie inquired innocently. “Because talking sometimes helps, especially with a friend.”
Jo’s eyes sparkled. “You know, I always suspected you were a lot craftier than you let on. Throwing my own words back at me. You should be ashamed.”
Katie smiled but said nothing, just as Jo had done with her. And, surprising her, it worked.
“I’m not sure how much I should say,” Jo added. “But I can tell you this: he’s a good man. He’s the kind of man you can count on to do the right thing. You can see that in how much he loves his kids.”
Katie brought her lips together for a moment. “Did you two ever see each other?”
Jo seemed to choose her words carefully. “Yes, but maybe not in the way you’re thinking. And just so we’re clear: it was a long time ago and everyone has moved on.”
Katie wasn’t sure what to make of her answer but didn’t want to press it. “What’s his story, by the way? I take it he’s divorced, right?”
“You should ask him.”
“Me? Why would I want to ask him?”
“Because you asked me,” Jo said, arching an eyebrow. “Which means, of course, that you’re interested in him.”
“I’m not interested in him.”
“Then why would you be wondering about him?”
Katie scowled. “For a friend, you’re kind of manipulative.”
Jo shrugged. “I just tell people what they already know, but are afraid to admit to themselves.”
Katie thought about that. “Just so we’re clear, I’m officially taking back my offer to help you paint your house.”
“You already said you’d do it.”
“I know, but I’m taking back the offer.”
Jo laughed. “Okay,” she said. “Hey, what are you doing tonight?”
“I have to go to work in a little while. Actually, I should probably start getting ready.”
“How about tomorrow night? Are you working?”
“No. I have the weekend off.”
“Then how about I bring over a bottle of wine? I’m sure I’m going to need it, and I really don’t want to be inhaling the paint fumes any longer than I have to. Would that be okay?”
“Actually, that sounds like fun.”
“Good.” Jo unfolded herself from the chair and stood. “It’s a date.”
Saturday morning dawned with blue skies, but soon clouds began rolling in. Gray and thick, they swirled and twisted in the ever-rising wind. The temperature began to plummet, and by the time Katie left the house, she had to wear a sweatshirt. The store was a little shy of two miles from her house, maybe half an hour’s walk at a steady pace, and she knew she’d have to hurry if she didn’t want to get caught in a storm.
She reached the main road just as she heard the thunder rumbling. She picked up the pace, feeling the air thickening around her. A truck sped past, leaving a blast of dust in its wake, and Katie moved onto the sandy median. The air smelled of salt carried from the ocean. Above her, a red-tailed hawk floated intermittently on updrafts, testing the force of the wind.
The steady rhythm of her footfalls set her mind adrift and she found herself reflecting on her conversation with Jo. Not the stories she’d told, but some of the things Jo had said about Alex. Jo, she decided, didn’t know what she was talking about. While she was simply trying to make conversation, Jo had twisted her words into something that wasn’t quite true. Granted, Alex seemed like a nice guy, and as Jo said, Kristen was as sweet as could be, but she wasn’t interested in him. She barely knew him. Since Josh had fallen in the river, they hadn’t said more than a few words to each other, and the last thing she wanted was a relationship of any kind.
So why had it felt like Jo was trying to bring them together?
She wasn’t sure, but honestly, it didn’t matter. She was glad Jo was coming over tonight. Just a couple of friends, sharing some wine… it wasn’t that special, she knew. Other people, other women, did things like that all the time. She wrinkled her brow. All right, maybe not all the time, but most of them probably felt like they could do it if they wanted to, and she supposed that was the difference between her and them. How long had it been since she’d done something that felt normal?
Since her childhood, she admitted. Since those days when she’d put pennies on the track. But she hadn’t been completely truthful with Jo. She hadn’t told her that she often went to the railroad tracks to escape the sound of her parents arguing, their slurred voices raging at each other. She didn’t tell Jo that more than once, she’d been caught in the crossfire, and that when she was twelve, she’d been hit with a snow globe that her father had thrown at her mother. It made a gash in her head that bled for hours, but neither her mom nor her dad had shown any inclination to bring her to the hospital. She didn’t tell Jo that her dad was mean when he was drunk, or that she’d never invited anyone, even Emily, over to her house, or that college hadn’t worked out because her parents thought it was a waste of time and money. Or that they’d kicked her out of the house on the day she graduated from high school.
Maybe, she thought, she’d tell Jo about those things. Or maybe she wouldn’t. It wasn’t all that important. So what if she hadn’t had the best childhood? Yes, her parents were alcoholics and often unemployed, but aside from the snow-globe incident, they’d never hurt her. No, she didn’t get a car or have birthday parties, but she’d never gone to bed hungry, either, and in the fall, no matter how tight things were, she always got new clothes for school. Her dad might not have been the greatest, but he hadn’t snuck into her bedroom at night to do awful things, things she knew had happened to her friends. At eighteen, she didn’t consider herself scarred. A bit disappointed about college, maybe, and nervous about having to make her own way in the world, but not damaged beyond repair. And she’d made it. Atlantic City hadn’t been all bad. She’d met a couple of nice guys, and she could remember more than one evening she spent laughing and talking with friends from work until the early hours of the morning.
No, she reminded herself, her childhood hadn’t defined her, or had anything to do with the real reason she’d come to Southport. Even though Jo was the closest thing to a friend that she had in Southport, Jo knew absolutely nothing about her. No one did.
“Hi, Miss Katie,” Kristen piped up from her little table. No dolls today. Instead, she was bent over a coloring book, holding crayons and working on a picture of unicorns and rainbows.
“Hi, Kristen. How are you?”
“I’m good.” She looked up from her coloring book. “Why do you always walk here?”
Katie paused, then came around the corner of the counter and squatted down to Kristen’s level. “Because I don’t have a car.”
Because I don’t have a license, Katie thought. And even if I did, I can’t afford a car. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll think about getting one, okay?”
“Okay,” she said. She held up the coloring book. “What do you think of my picture?”
“It’s pretty. You’re doing a great job.”
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll give it to you when I’m finished.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“I know,” she said with charming self-assurance. “But I want to. You can hang it on your refrigerator.”
Katie smiled and stood up. “That’s just what I was thinking.”
“Do you need help shopping?”
“I think I can handle it today. And that way, you can finish coloring.”
“Okay,” she agreed.
Retrieving a basket, she saw Alex approaching. He waved at her, and though it made no sense she had the feeling that she was really seeing him for the first time. Though his hair was gray, there were only a few lines around the corners of his eyes, but they added to, rather than detracted from, an overall sense of vitality. His shoulders tapered to a trim waist, and she had the impression that he was a man who neither ate nor drank to excess.
“Hey, Katie. How are you?”
“I’m fine. And yourself?”
“Can’t complain.” He grinned. “I’m glad you came in. I wanted to show you something.” He pointed toward the monitor and she saw Josh sitting on the dock holding his fishing pole.
“You let him go back out there?” she asked.
“See the vest he’s wearing?”
She leaned closer, squinting. “A life jacket?”
“It took me awhile to find one that wasn’t too bulky, or too hot. But this one is perfect. And really, I had no choice. You have no idea how miserable he was, not being able to fish. I can’t tell you how many times he begged me to change my mind. I couldn’t take it anymore, and I thought this was a solution.”
“He’s okay with wearing it?”
“New rule—it’s either wear it, or don’t fish. But I don’t think he minds.”
“Does he ever catch any fish?”
“Not as many as he’d like, but, yes, he does.”
“Do you eat them?”
“Sometimes.” He nodded. “But Josh usually throws them back. He doesn’t mind catching the same fish over and over.”
“I’m glad you found a solution.”
“A better father probably would have figured it out beforehand.”
For the first time, she looked up at him. “I get the sense you’re a pretty good father.”
Their eyes held for a moment before she forced herself to turn away. Alex, sensing her discomfort, began rummaging around behind the counter.
“I have something for you,” he said, pulling out a bag and placing it on the counter. “There’s a small farm I work with that has a hothouse, and they can grow things when other people can’t. They just dropped off some fresh vegetables yesterday. Tomatoes, cucumbers, some different kinds of squash. You might want to try them out. My wife swore they were the best she’d ever tasted.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I still do that sometimes. I meant my late wife. She passed away a couple of years ago.”
“I’m sorry,” she murmured, her mind flashing back to her conversation with Jo.
What’s his story?
You should ask him, Jo had countered.
Jo had obviously known that his wife had died, but hadn’t said anything. Odd.
Alex didn’t notice that her mind had wandered. “Thank you,” he said, his voice subdued. “She was a great person. You would have liked her.” A wistful expression crossed his face. “But anyway,” he finally added, “she swore by the place. It’s organic, and the family still harvests by hand. Usually, the produce is gone within hours, but I set a little aside for you, in case you wanted to try some.” He smiled. “Besides, you’re a vegetarian, right? A vegetarian will appreciate these. I promise.”
She squinted up at him. “Why would you think I’m a vegetarian?”
“Oh,” he said, pushing his hands into his pockets. “My mistake.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I’ve been accused of worse.”
“I doubt that.”
Don’t, she thought to herself. “Okay.” She nodded. “I’ll take the vegetables. And thank you.”
Excerpted from Safe Haven by Sparks, Nicholas Copyright © 2011 by Sparks, Nicholas. Excerpted by permission.
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