She soaked a while longer in the tub before finally getting out and toweling off. She went to the closet and looked for a dress, finally choosing a long yellow one that dipped slightly in the front, the kind of dress that was common in the South. She slipped it on and looked in the mirror, turning from side to side. It fit her well and made her look feminine, but she eventually decided against it and put it back on the hanger. Instead she found a more casual, less revealing dress and put that on. Light blue with a touch of lace, it buttoned up the front, and though it didn't look quite as nice as the first one, it conveyed an image she thought would be more appropriate. She wore little makeup, just a touch of eye shadow and mascara to accent her eyes. Perfume next, not too much. She found a pair of small‐hoped earrings, put those on, then slipped on the tan, low‐heeled sandals she had been wearing earlier. She brushed her blond hair, pinned it up, and looked in the mirror. No, it was too much, she thought, and she let it back down. Better. When she was finished she stepped back and evaluated herself. She looked good: not too dressy, not too casual. She didn't want to overdo it. After all, she didn't know what to expect. It had been a long time‐‐probably too long‐‐and many different things could have happened, even things she didn't want to consider. She looked down and saw her hands were shaking, and she laughed to herself. It was strange; she wasn't normally this nervous. Like Lon, she had always been confident, even as a child. She remembered that it had been a problem at times, especially when she dated, because it had intimidated most of the boys her age. She found her pocketbook and car keys, then picked up the room key. She turned it over in her hand a couple of times, thinking, You've come this far, don't give up now, and almost left then, but instead sat on the bed again. She checked her watch.
Almost six o'clock. She knew she had to leave in a few minutes‐‐she didn't want to arrive after dark, but she needed a little more time.
"Damn," she whispered, "what am I doing here? I shouldn't be here. There's no reason for it," but once she said it she knew it wasn't true. There was something here. If nothing else, she would have her answer. She opened her pocketbook and thumbed through it until she came to a folded‐up piece of newspaper. After taking it out slowly, almost reverently, being careful not to rip it, she unfolded it and stared at it for a while. "This is why," she finally said to herself, "this is what it's all about." Noah got up at five and kayaked for an hour up Brices Creek, as he usually did. When he finished, he changed into his work clothes, warmed some biscuits from the day before, grabbed a couple of apples, and washed his breakfast down with two cups of coffee. He worked on the fencing again, repairing most of the posts that needed it. It was Indian summer, the temperature over eighty degrees, and by lunchtime he was hot and tired and glad for the break. He ate at the creek because the mullets were jumping.
He liked to watch them jump three or four times and glide through the air before vanishing into the brackish water. For some reason he had always been pleased by the fact that their instinct hadn't changed for thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of years. Sometimes he wondered if man's instincts had changed in that time and always concluded that they hadn't. At least in the basic, most primal ways. As far as he could tell, man had always been aggressive, always striving to dominate, trying to control the world and everything in it. The war in Europe and Japan proved that. He quit working a little after three and walked to a small shed that sat near his dock. He went in, found his fishing pole, a couple of lures, and some live crickets he kept on hand, then walked out to the dock, baited his hook,and cast his line. Fishing always made him reflect on his life, and he did it now. After his mother died, he could remember spending his days in a dozen different homes, and for one reason or another, he stuttered badly as a child and was teased for it. He began to speak less and less, and by the age of five, he wouldn't speak at all. When he started classes, his teachers thought he was retarded and recommended that he be pulled out of school. Instead, his father took matters into his own hands. He kept him in school and afterward made him come to the lumberyard, where he worked, to haul and stack wood. "It's good that we spend some time together," he would say as they worked side by side, "just like my daddy and I did."
During their time talk about birds and together, his father would animals or tell stories and legends common to North Carolina. Within a few months Noah was speaking again, though not well, and his father decided to teach him to read with books of poetry. "Learn to read this aloud and you'll be able to say anything you want to." His father had been right again, and by the following year, Noah had lost his stutter. But he continued to go to the lumberyard every day simply because his father was there, and in the evenings he would read the works of Whitman and Tennyson aloud as his father rocked beside him. He had been reading poetry ever since.
When he got a little older, he spent most of his weekends and vacations alone. He explored the Croatan Forest in his first canoe, following Brices Creek for twenty miles until he could go no farther, then hiked the remaining miles to the coast. Camping and exploring became his passion, and he spent hours in the forest, sitting beneath blackjack oak trees, whistling quietly, and playing his guitar for beavers and geese and wild blue herons. Poets knew that isolation in nature, far from people and things man‐made, was good for the soul, and he'd always identified with poets. Although he was quiet, years of heavy lifting at the lumberyard helped him excel in sports, and his athletic success led to popularity. He enjoyed the football games and track meets, and though most of his teammates spent their free time together as well, he rarely joined them. An occasional person found him arrogant; most simply figured he had grown up a bit faster than everyone else. He had a few girlfriends in school, but none had ever made an impression on him. Except for one. And she came after graduation. Allie. His Allie. He remembered talking to Fin about Allie after they'd left the festival that first night, and Fin had laughed. Then he'd made two predictions: first, that they would fall in love, and second, that it wouldn't work out. There was a slight tug at his line and Noah hoped for a largemouth bass, but the tugging eventually stopped, and after reeling his line in and checking the bait, he cast again. Fin ended up being right on both counts. Most of the summer, she had to make excuses to her parents whenever they wanted to see each other. It wasn't that they didn't like him‐‐it was that he was from a different class, too poor, and they would never approve if their daughter became serious with someone like him. "! don't care what my parents think, I love you and always will," she would say. "We'll find a way to be together."
But in the end they couldn't. By early September the tobacco had been harvested and she had no choice but to return with her family to Winston‐Salem. "Only the summer is over, Allie, not us," he'd said the morning she left. "We'll never be over." But they were. For a reason he didn't fully understand, the letters he wrote went unanswered. Eventually he decided to leave New Bern to help get her off his mind, but also because the Depression made earning a living in New Bern almost impossible. He went first to Norfolk and worked at a shipyard for six months before he was laid off, then moved to New Jersey because he'd heard the economy wasn't so bad there. He eventually found a job in a scrap yard, separating scrap metal from everything else. The owner, a Jewish man named Morris Goldman, was intent on collecting as much scrap metal as he could, convinced that a war was going to start in Europe and that America would be dragged in again. Noah, though, didn't care about the reason. He was just happy to have a job. His years in the lumberyard had toughened him to this type of labor, and he worked hard. Not only did it help him keep his mind off Allie during the day, but it was something he felt he had to do. His daddy had always said: "Give a day's work for a day's pay. Anything less is stealing.'' That attitude pleased his boss.
"It's a shame you aren't Jewish," Goldman would say, "you're such a fine boy in so many other ways." It was the best compliment Goldman could give. He continued to think about Allie, especially at night. He wrote her once a month but never received a reply. Eventually he wrote a final letter and forced himself to accept the fact that the summer they'd spent with one another was the only thing they'd ever share. Still, though, she stayed with him. Three years after the last letter, he went to Winston‐Salem in the hope of finding her. He went to her house, discovered that she had moved, and after talking to some neighbors, finally called RJR. The girl who answered the phone was new and didn't recognize the name, but she poked around the personnel files for him. She found out that Allie's father had left the company and that no forwarding address was listed. That trip was the first and last time he ever looked for her. For the next eight years, he worked for Goldman. At first he was one of twelve employees, but as the years dragged on, the company grew, and he was promoted. By 1940 he had mastered the business and was running the entire operation, brokering the deals and managing a staff of thirty. The yard had become the largest scrap metal dealer on the East Coast.
During that time, he dated a few different women. He became serious with one, a waitress from the local diner with deep blue eyes and silky black hair. Although they dated for two years and had many good times together, he never came to feel the same way about her as he did about Allie.
But neither did he forget her. She was a few years older than he was, and it was she who taught him the ways to please a woman, the places to touch and kiss, where to linger, the things to whisper. They would sometimes spend an entire day in bed, holding each other and making the kind of love that fully satisfied both of them. She had known they wouldn't be together forever. Toward the end of their relationship she'd told him once, "I wish I could give you what you're looking for, but I don't know what it is. There's a part of you that you keep closed off from everyone, including me. It's as if I'm not the one you're really with. Your mind is on someone else." He tried to deny it, but she didn't believe him. "I'm a woman‐‐I know these things. When you look at me sometimes, I know you're seeing someone else. It's like you keep waiting for her to pop out of thin air to take you away from all this .... "A month later she visited him at work and told him she'd met someone else. He understood. They parted as friends, and the following year he received a postcard from her saying she was married. He hadn't heard from her since. While he was in New Jersey, he would visit his father once a year around Christmas. They'd spend some time fishing and talking, and once in a while they'd take a trip to the coast to go camping on the Outer Banks near Ocracoke. In December 1941, when he was twenty‐six, the war began, just as Goldman had predicted. Noah walked into his office the following month and informed Goldman of his intent to enlist, then returned to New Bern to say good‐bye to his father. Five weeks later he found himself in boot camp. While there, he received a letter from Goldman thanking him for his work, together with a copy of a certificate entitling him to a small percentage of the scrap yard if it ever sold. "I couldn't have done it without you," the letter said. "You're the finest young man who ever worked for me, even if you aren't Jewish.”
He spent his next three years with Patton's Third Army, tramping through deserts in North Africa and forests in Europe with thirty pounds on his back, his infantry unit never far from action. He watched his friends die around him; watched as some of them were buried thousands of miles from home. Once, while hiding in a foxhole near the Rhine, he imagined he saw Allie watching over him. He remembered the war ending in Europe, then a few months later in Japan. Just before he was discharged, he received a letter from a lawyer in New Jersey representing Morris Goldman. Upon meeting the lawyer, he found out that Goldman had died a year earlier and his estate liquidated. The business had been sold, and Noah was given a check for almost seventy thousand dollars. For some reason he was oddly unexcited about it. The following week he returned 'to New Bern and bought the house. He remembered bringing his father around later, showing him what he was going to do, pointing out the changes he intended to make. His father seemed weak as he walked around, coughing and wheezing. Noah was concerned, but his father told him not to worry, assuring him that he had the flu. Less than one month later his father died of pneumonia and was buried next to his wife in the local cemetery. Noah tried to stop by regularly to leave some flowers; occasionally he left a note. And every night without fail he took a moment to remember him, then said a prayer for the man who'd taught him everything that mattered. After reeling in the line, he put the gear away and went back to the house. His neighbor, Martha Shaw, was there to thank him, bringing three loaves of homemade bread and some biscuits in appreciation for what he'd done. Her husband had been killed in the war, leaving her with three children and a tired shack of a house to raise them in. Winter was coming, and he'd spent a few days at her place last week repairing her roof, replacing broken windows and sealing the others, and fixing her wood stove. Hopefully, it would be enough to get them through. Once she'd left, he got in his battered Dodge truck and went to see Gus. He always stopped there when he was going to the store because Gus's family didn't have a car. One of the daughters hopped up and rode with him, and they did their shopping at Capers General Store. When he got home he didn't unpack the groceries right away. Instead he showered, found a Budweiser and a book by Dylan Thomas, and went to sit on the porch. She still had trouble believing it, even as she held the proof in her hands. It had been in the newspaper at her parents' house three Sundays ago. She had gone to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, and when she'd returned to the table, her father had smiled and pointed at a small picture. "Remember this?" He handed her the paper, and after an uninterested first glance, something in the picture caught her eye and she took a closer look. "It can't be," she whispered, and when her father looked at her curiously, she ignored him, sat down, and read the article without speaking. She vaguely remembered her mother coming to the table and sitting opposite her, and when she finally put aside the paper, her mother was staring at her with the same expression her father had just moments before. "Are you okay?" her mother asked over her coffee cup. "You look a little pale." She didn't answer right away, she couldn't, and it was then that she'd noticed her hands were shaking. That had been when it started. "And here it will end, one way or the other," she whispered again. She refolded the scrap of paper and put it back, remembering that she had left her parents' home later that day with the paper so she could cut out the article. She read it again before she went to bed that night, trying to fathom the coincidence, and read it again the next morning as if to make sure the whole thing wasn't a dream. And now, after three weeks of long walks alone, after three weeks of distraction, it was the reason she'd come.
When asked, she said her erratic behavior was due to stress. It was the perfect excuse; everyone understood, including Lon, and that's why he hadn't argued when she'd wanted to get away for a couple of days. The wedding plans were stressful to everyone involved.
Almost five hundred people were invited, including the governor, one senator, and the ambassador to Peru. It was too much, in her opinion, but their engagement was news and had dominated the social pages since they had announced their plans six months ago. Occasionally she felt like running away with Lon to get married without the fuss. But she knew he wouldn't agree; like the aspiring politician he was, he loved being the center of attention. She took a deep breath and stood again. "It's now or never," she whispered, then picked up her things and went to the door. She paused only slightly before opening it and going downstairs. The manager smiled as she walked by, and she could feel his eyes on her as she left and went to her car. She slipped behind the wheel, looked at herself one last time, then started the engine and turned right onto Front Street. She wasn't surprised that she still knew her way around town so well. Even though she hadn't been here in years, it wasn't large and she navigated the streets easily. After crossing the Trent River on an old‐fashioned drawbridge, she turned onto a gravel road and began the final leg of her journey.
It was beautiful here in the low country, as it always had been. Unlike the Piedmont area where she grew up, the land was flat, but it had the same salty, fertile soil that was ideal for cotton and tobacco. Those two crops and timber kept the towns alive in this part of the state, and as she drove along the road outside town, she saw the beauty that had first attracted people to this region. To her, it hadn't changed at all. Broken sunlight passed through water oaks and hickory trees a hundred feet tall, illuminating the colors of fall. On her left, a river the color of iron veered toward the road and then turned away before giving up its life to a different, larger river another mile ahead. The gravel road itself wound its way between antebellum farms, and she knew that for some of the farmers, life hadn't changed since before their grandparents were born. The constancy of the place brought back a flood of memories, and she felt her insides tighten as one by one she recognized landmarks she'd long since forgotten.
The sun hung just above the trees on her left, and as she rounded a curve, she passed an old church, abandoned for years but still standing. She had explored it that summer, looking for souvenirs from the War between the States, and as her car passed by, the memories of that day became stronger, as if they'd just happened yesterday.
A majestic oak tree on the banks of the river came into view next, and the memories became more intense. It looked the same as it had back then, branches low and thick,stretching horizontally along the ground with Spanish moss draped over the limbs like a veil. She remembered sitting beneath the tree on a hot July day with someone who looked at her with a longing that took everything else away. And it had been at that moment that she'd first fallen in love.
He was two years older than she was, and as she drove along this roadway‐in‐time, he slowly came into focus once again. He always looked older than he really was, she remembered thinking. His appearance was that of someone slightly weathered, almost like a farmer coming home after hours in the field. He had the callused hands and broad shoulders that came to those who worked hard for a living, and the first faint lines were beginning to form around the dark eyes that seemed to read her every thought. He was tall and strong, with light brown hair, and handsome in his own way, but it was his voice that she remembered most of all. He had read to her that day; read to her as they lay in the grass beneath the tree with an accent that was soft and fluent, almost musical in quality. It was the kind of voice that belonged on radio, and it seemed to hang in the air when he read to her.
She remembered closing her eyes, listening closely, and letting the words he was reading touch her soul: It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk. I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun... He thumbed through old books with dog‐eared pages, books he'd read a hundred times. He'd read for a while, then stop, and the two of them would talk. She would tell him what she wanted in her life‐‐her hopes and dreams for the future‐‐and he would listen intently and then promise to make it all come true. And the way he said it made her believe him, and she knew then how much he meant to her. Occasionally, when she asked, he would talk about himself or explain why he had chosen a particular poem and what he thought of it, and at other times he just studied her in that intense way of his.
They watched the sun go down and ate together under the stars. It was getting late by then, and she knew her parents would be furious if they knew where she was. At that moment, though, it really didn't matter to her. All she could think about was how special the day had been, how special he was, and as they started toward her house a few minutes later, he took her hand in his and she felt the way it warmed her the whole way back. Another turn in the road and she finally saw it in the distance. The house had changed dramatically from what she remembered. She slowed the car as she approached, turning into the long, tree‐lined dirt drive that led to the beacon that had summoned her from Raleigh. She drove slowly, looking toward the house, and took a deep breath when she saw him on the porch, watching her car. He was dressed casually. From a distance, he looked the same as he had back then. For a moment, when the light from the sun was behind him, he almost seemed to vanish into the scenery.
Her car continued forward, rolling slowly, then finally stopped beneath an oak tree that shaded the front of the house. She turned the key, never taking her eyes from him, and the engine sputtered to a halt. He stepped off the porch and began to approach her, walking easily, then suddenly stopped cold as she emerged from the car. For a long time all they could do was stare at each other without moving.
Allison Nelson, twenty‐nine years old and engaged, a socialite, searching for answers she needed to know, and Noah Calhoun, the dreamer, thirty‐one, visited by the ghost that had come to dominate his life.
Neither one of them moved as they faced each other.
He hadn't said anything, his muscles seemed frozen, and for a second she thought he didn't recognize her. Suddenly she felt guilty about showing up this way, without warning, and this made it harder. She had thought it would be easier somehow, that she would know what to say. But she didn't. Everything that came into her head seemed inappropriate, somehow lacking.
Thoughts of the summer they'd shared came back to her, and as she stared at him, she noticed how little he'd changed since she'd last seen him. He looked good, she thought. With his shirt tucked loosely into old faded jeans, she could see the same broad shoulders she remembered, tapering down to narrow hips and a flat stomach. He was tan, too, as if he'd worked outside all summer, and though his hair was a little thinner and lighter than she remembered, he looked the same as he had when she'd known him last. When she was finally ready, she took a deep breath and smiled. "Hello, Noah. It's good to see you again." Her comment startled him, and he looked at her with amazement in his eyes. Then, after shaking his head slightly, he slowly began to smile. "You too ∙, the stammered. He brought his hand to his chin, and she noticed he hadn't shaved. "It's really you, isn't it? I can't believe it " She heard the shock in his voice as he spoke, and surprising her, it all came together‐‐being here, seeing him. She felt something twitch inside, something deep and old, something that made her dizzy for just a second.
She caught herself fighting for control. She hadn't expected this to happen, didn't want it to happen. She was engaged now. She hadn't come here for this.., yet... Yet... Yet the feeling went on despite herself, and for a brief moment she felt fifteen again. Felt as she hadn't in years, as if all her dreams could still come true.
Felt as though she'd finally come home. Without another word they came together, As if it were the most natural thing in the world, and he put his arms around her, drawing her close. They held each other tightly, making it real, both of them letting the fourteen years of separation dissolve in the deepening twilight. They stayed like that for a long time before she finally pulled back to look at him. Up close, she could see the changes she hadn't noticed at first. He was a man now, and his face had lost the softness of youth. The faint lines around his eyes had deepened, and there was a scar on his chin that hadn't been there before. There was a new edge to him; he seemed less innocent, more cautious, and yet the way he was holding her made her realize how much she'd missed him since she'd seen him last. Her eyes brimmed with tears as they finally released each other. She laughed nervously under her breath while wiping the tears from the corners of her eyes. "Are you okay?" he asked, a thousand other questions on his face. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to cry .... " "It's okay," he said, smiling, "I still can't believe it's you. How did you find me?" She stepped back, trying to compose herself, wiping away the last of her tears. "I saw the story on the house in the Raleigh paper a couple of weeks ago, and I had to come see you again." Noah smiled broadly. "I'm glad you did." He stepped back just a bit. "God, you look fantastic. You're even prettier now than you were then." She felt the blood in her face. Just like fourteen years ago. "Thank you. You look great, too." And he did, no doubt about it. The years had treated him well. "So what have you been up to? Why are you here ?" His questions brought her back to the present, making her realize what could happen if she wasn't careful. Don't let this get out of hand, she told herself; the longer it goes on, the harder it's going to be. And she didn't want it to get any harder. But God, those eyes. Those soft, dark eyes. She turned away and took a deep breath, wondering how to say it, and when she finally started, her voice was quiet.
"Noah, before you get the wrong idea, I did want to see you again, but there's more to it than iust that." She paused for a second. "I came here for a reason. There's something I have to tell you." "What is it?" She looked away and didn't answer for a moment, surprised that she couldn't tell him just yet. In the silence, Noah felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. Whatever it was, was bad. "I don't know how to say it. I thought I did at first, but now I'm not so sure …."
The air was suddenly rattled by the sharp cry of a raccoon, and Clem came out from under the porch, barking gruffly. Both of them turned at the commotion, and Allie was glad for the distraction. "Is he yours?" she asked. Noah nodded, feeling the tightness in his stomach. "Actually it's a she. Clementine's her name. But yeah, she's all mine." They both watched as Clem shook her head, stretched, then wandered toward the sounds. Allie's eyes widened just a bit when she saw her limp away. "What happened to her leg?" she asked, stalling for time. "Hit by a car a few months back. Doc Harrison, the vet, called me to see if I wanted her because her owner didn't anymore. After I saw what had happened, I guess I just couldn't let her be put down." "You were always nice like that," she said, trying to relax. She paused, then looked past him toward the house. "You did a Wonderful job restoring it. It looks perfect, just like 1 knew it would someday." He turned his head in the same direction as hers while he wondered about the small talk and what she was holding back. "Thanks, that's nice of you. It was quite a pro‐iect, though. I don't know if I would do it again." "Of course you would," she said. She knew exactly how he felt about this place. But then, she knew how he felt about everything‐‐or at least she had a long time ago. And with that thought, she realized how much had changed since then. They were strangers now; she could tell by looking at him. Could tell that fourteen years apart was a long time. Too long. "What is it, Allie?" He turned to her, compelling her to look, but she continued to stare at the house. "I'm being rather silly, aren't I?" she asked, trying to smile. "What do you mean?" "This whole thing. Showing up out of the blue, not knowing what I want to say. You must think I'm crazy." "You're not crazy," he said gently. He reached for her hand, and she let him hold it as they stood next to one another. He went on: "Even though I don't know why, I can see this is hard for you. Why don't we go for a walk?" "Like we used to?" "Why not? I think we both could use one." She hesitated and looked to his front door. "Do you need to tell anyone?" He shook his head. "No, there's no one to tell. It's just me and Clem." Even though she'd asked, she had suspected there wouldn't be anyone else, and inside she didn't know how to feel about that. But it did make what she wanted to say a little harder. It would have been easier if there was someone else.