NICHOLAS SPARKS

THE NOTEBOOK

Allie woke early the next morning, forced by the incessant chirping of starlings,

and rubbed her eyes, feeling the stiffness in her body. She hadn't slept well, waking after every dream, and she remembered seeing the hands of the clock in different positions during the night, as if verifying the passage of time. She'd slept in the soft shirt he'd given her, and she smelled him once again while thinking about the evening they'd spent together. The easy laughter and conversation came back to her, and she especially remembered the way he'd talked about her painting. It was so unexpected, yet uplifting, and as the words began to replay in her mind, she realized how sorry she would have been had she decided not to see him again.

She looked out the window and watched the chattering birds search for food in early light. Noah, she knew, had always been a morning person who greeted dawn in his own way. She knew he liked to kayak or canoe, and she remembered the one morning she'd spent with him in his canoe, watching the sun come up. She'd had to sneak out her window to do it because her parents wouldn't allow it, but she hadn't been caught and she remembered how Noah had slipped his arm around her and pulled her close as dawn began to unfold. "Look there," he'd whispered, and she'd watched her first sunrise with her head on his shoulder, wondering if anything could be better than what was happening at that moment.

And as she got out of bed to take her bath, feeling the cold floor beneath her feet, she wondered if he'd been on the water this morning watching another day begin, thinking somehow he probably had. She was right. Noah was up before the sun and dressed quickly, same jeans as last night, undershirt, clean flannel shirt, blue jacket, and boots. He brushed his teeth before going downstairs, drank a quick glass of milk, and grabbed two biscuits on the way out the door. After Clem greeted him with a couple of sloppy licks, he walked to the dock where his kayak was stored. He liked to let the river work its magic, loosening up his muscles, warming his body, clearing his mind.

The old kayak, well used and river stained, hung on two rusty hooks attached to his dock just above the waterline to keep off the barnacles. He lifted it free from the hooks and set it at his feet, inspected it quickly, then took it to the bank. In a couple of seasoned moves long since mastered by habit, he had it in the water working its way upstream with himself as the pilot and engine. The air was cool on his skin, almost crisp, and the sky was a haze of different colors: black directly above him like a mountain peak, then blues of infinite range, becoming lighter until it met the horizon, where gray took its place. He took a few deep breaths, smelling pine trees and brackish water, and began to reflect. This had been part of what he'd missed most when he had lived up north. Because of the long hours at work, there had been little time to spend on the water. Camping, hiking, paddling on rivers, dating, working . . . something had to go. For the most part he'd been able to explore New Jersey's countryside on foot whenever he'd had extra time,but in fourteen years he hadn't canoed or kayaked once. It had been one of the first things he'd done when he returned. There's something special, almost mystical, about spending dawn on the water, he thought to himself, and he did it almost every day now.

Sunny and clear or cold and bitter, it never mattered as he paddled in rhythm to music in his head, working above water the color of iron. He saw a family of turtles resting on a partially submerged log and watched as a heron broke for flight, skimming just above the water before vanishing into the silver twilight that preceded sunrise. He paddled out to the middle of the creek, where he watched the orange glow begin to stretch across the water. He stopped paddling hard, giving just enough effort to keep him in place, staring until light began to break through the trees. He always liked to pause at day‐break‐‐there was a moment when the view was spectacular, as if the world were being born again. Afterward he began to paddle hard, working off the tension, preparing for the day. While he did that, questions danced in his mind like water drops in a frying pan. He wondered about Lon and what type of man he was, wondered about their relationship. Most of all, though, he wondered about Allie and why she had come. By the time he reached home, he felt renewed. Checking his watch, he was surprised to find that it had taken two hours. Time always played tricks out there, though, and he'd stopped questioning it months ago.

 

He hung the kayak to dry, stretched for a couple of minutes, and went to the shed where he stored his canoe. He carried it to the bank, leaving it a few feet from the water, and as he turned toward the house, he a little stiff. The morning haze he knew the stiffness noted that his legs were still hadn't burned off yet, and in his legs usually predicted rain. He looked to the western sky and saw storm clouds, thick and heavy, far off but definitely present. The winds weren't blowing hard, but they were bringing the clouds closer. From the looks of them, he didn't want to be outside when they got here. Damn. How much time did he have? A few hours, maybe more. Maybe less. He showered, put on new jeans, a red shirt, and black cowboy boots, brushed his hair, and went downstairs to the kitchen. He did the dishes from the night before, picked up a little around the house, made himself some coffee, and went to the porch. The sky was darker now, and he checked the barometer. Steady, but it would start dropping soon. The western sky promised that. He'd learned long ago to never underestimate the weather, and he wondered if it was a good idea to go out. The rain he could deal with; lightning was a different story. Especially if he was on the water. A canoe was no place to be when electricity sparked in humid air. He finished his coffee, putting off the decision until later. He went to the toolshed and found his ax. After checking the blade by pressing his thumb to it, he sharpened it with a whetstone until it was ready. "A dull ax is more dangerous than a sharp one," his daddy used to say. He spent the next twenty minutes splitting and stacking logs. He did it easily, his strokes efficient, and didn't break a sweat. He set a few logs off to the side for later and brought them inside when he was finished, putting them by the fireplace. He looked at Allie's painting again and reached out to touch it, bringing back the feelings of disbelief at seeing her again. God, what was it about her that made him feel this way? Even after all these years? What sort of power did she have over him? He finally turned away, shaking his head, and went back to the porch. He checked the barometer again. It hadn't changed. Then he looked at his watch. Allie should be here soon. Allie had finished her bath and was already dressed. Earlier she'd opened the window to check the temperature. It wasn't cold outside, and she'd decided on a cream‐colored spring dress with long sleeves and a high neck. It was soft and comfortable, maybe a little snug, but it looked good, and she had selected some white sandals that matched.

 

She spent the morning walking around down‐town. The Depression had taken its toll here, but she could see the signs of prosperity beginning to work their way back. The Masonic theater, the oldest active theater in the country, looked a little more run‐down but was still operating with a couple of recent movies. Fort Totten Park looked exactly the same as it had fourteen years ago, and she assumed the kids who played on the swings after school looked the same as well. She smiled at the memory then, thinking back to when things were simpler. Or at least had seemed to be. Now, it seemed, nothing was simple. It seemed so improbable, everything falling into place as it had, and she wondered what she would have been doing now, had she never seen the article in the paper. It wasn't very difficult to imagine, because her routines seldom changed. It was Wednesday, which meant bridge at the country club, then on to the Junior Women's League, where they would probably be arranging another fund‐raiser for the private school or hospital. After that, a visit with her mother, then home to get ready for dinner with Lon, because he made it a point to leave work by seven. It was the one night a week she saw him regularly. She suppressed a feeling of sadness about that, hoping that one day he would change. He had often promised to and usually followed through for a few weeks before drifting back to the same schedule. "I can't tonight, honey, " he would always explain. "I'm sorry, but I can't. Let me make it up to you later." She didn't like to argue with him about it, mostly because she knew he was telling the truth. Trial work was demanding, both beforehand and during, yet she couldn't help wondering sometimes why he had spent so much time courting her if he didn't want to spend the time with her now. She passed an art gallery, almost walked by it in her preoccupation, then turned and went back. She paused at the door for a second, surprised at how long it had been since she'd been in one. At least three years, maybe longer. Why had she avoided it? She went inside‐‐it had opened with the rest of the shops on Front Street‐‐and browsed among the paintings. Many of the artists were local, and there was a strong sea flavor to their works. Lots of ocean scenes, sandy beaches, pelicans, old sailing ships, tugboats, piers, and seagulls. But most of all, waves. Waves of every shape, size, and color imaginable, and after a while they all looked alike. The artists were either uninspired or lazy, she thought. On one wall though, there were a few paintings that more suited her tastes. All were by an artist she'd never heard of, Elayn, and most appeared to have been inspired by the architecture of the Greek islands. In the painting she liked the best, she noted the artist had purposely exaggerated the scene with smaller‐than‐life figures, wide lines, and heavy sweeps of color, a if not completely focused. Yet the colors were vivid and swirling, drawing the eye in, almost directing what it should see next. It was dynamic, dramatic. The more she thought about it, the more she liked it, and she considered buying it before she realized that she liked it because it reminded her of her own work. She examined it more closely and thought to herself that maybe Noah was right. Maybe she should start painting again.

At nine‐thirty Allie left the gallery and went to Hoffman‐Lane, a department store downtown. It took a few minutes to find what she was looking for, but it was there, in the school supply section. Paper, drawing chalk, and pencils, not high quality but good enough. It wasn't painting, but it was a start, and she was excited by the time she got back to her room. She sat at the desk and started working: nothing specific, just getting the feel of it again, letting shapes and colors flow from the memory of her youth. After a few minutes of abstraction, she did a rough sketch of the street scene as seen from her room, amazed at how easily it came. It was almost as if she'd never stopped. She examined it when she was finished, pleased with the effort. She wondered what to try next and finally decided. Since she didn't have a model, she visualized it in her head before starting. And though it was harder than the street scene, it came naturally and began to take form.

Minutes passed quickly. She worked steadily but checked the time frequently so she wouldn't be late, and she finished it a little before noon. It had taken almost two hours, but the end result surprised her. It looked as though it had taken a great deal longer. After rolling it up, she put it in a bag and collected the rest of her things. On her way out the door, she looked at herself in the mirror, feeling oddly relaxed, not exactly sure why. Down the stairs again and out the door. As she left she heard a voice behind her. "Miss?" She turned, knowing it was directed at her. The manager. Same man as yesterday, a Curious look on his face.

 

"Yes?" "You had some calls last night." She was shocked. "I did?" ' "Yes. All from a Mr. Hammond." Oh, God. "Lon called?" "Yes, ma'am, four times. I talked to him when he called the second time. He was rather concerned about you. He said he was your fiancé" She smiled weakly, trying to hide what she was thinking. Four times? Four? What could that mean? What if something had happened back home? "Did he say anything? Is it an emergency?" He shook his head quickly. "He really didn't say, miss, but he didn't mention anything. Actually, he sounded more concerned about you, though." Good, she thought. That's good. And then, just as suddenly, a pang in her chest. Why the urgency? Why so many calls? Had she said anything yesterday? Why would he be so persistent? It was completely unlike him. Is there any way he could have found out? No... that was impossible. Unless someone saw her here yesterday and called .... But they would have had to follow her out to Noah's. No one would have done that. She had to call him now; no way to get around it. But she didn't want to, strangely. This was her time, and she wanted to spend it doing what she wanted. She hadn't planned on speaking to him until later, and for some reason she felt almost as if talking to him now would spoil the day. Besides, what was she going to say? How could she explain being out so late? A late dinner and then a walk? Maybe. Or a movie? Or... "Miss?" Almost noon, she thought. Where would he be? His office, probably.... No. In court, she suddenly realized, and immediately felt as if she'd been released from shackles. There was no way she could talk to him, even if she wanted to. She was surprised by her feelings. She shouldn't feel this way, she knew, and yet it didn't bother her. She looked at her watch, acting now. "Is it really almost twelve?" The manager nodded after looking at the clock. "Yes, a quarter till, actually." "Unfortunately," she started, "he's in court right now and I can't reach him. If he does call again, could you tell him I'm shopping and that I'll try to call him later?" "Of course," he answered. She could see the question in his eyes, though: But where were you last night? He had known exactly when she'd come in. Too late for a single woman in this small town, she was sure.

 

"Thank you," she said, smiling. "I'd appreciate it." Two minutes later she was in her car, driving to Noah's, anticipating the day, largely unconcerned about the phone calls. Yesterday she would have been, and she wondered what that meant. As she was driving over the drawbridge less than four minutes after she'd left the inn, Lon called from the courthouse.

Noah was sitting in his rocker, drinking sweet tea, listening for the car, when he finally heard it turn up the drive. He went around front and watched the car pull up and park beneath the oak tree again. Same spot as yesterday. Clem barked a greeting at her car door, tail wagging, and he saw Allie wave from inside the car. She stepped out, patted Clem on the head while she cooed at her, then turned, smiling at Noah as he walked toward her. She looked more relaxed than yesterday, more confident, and again he felt a slight shock at seeing her. It was different from yesterday, though. Newer feelings now, not simply memories anymore. If anything, his attraction for her had grown stronger overnight, more intense, and it made him feel a little nervous in her presence.

Allie met him halfway, carrying a small bag in one hand. She surprised him by kissing him gently on the cheek, her free hand lingering at his waist after she pulled back. "Hi," she said, radiance in her eyes, "where's the surprise?" He relaxed a little, thanking God for that. "Not even a 'Good afternoon' or 'How was your night?'" She smiled. Patience had never been one of her strongest attributes. "Fine. Good afternoon. How was your night? And where's the surprise?" He chuckled lightly, then paused. "Allie, I've got some bad news." "What?" "I was going to take you someplace, but with those clouds coming in, I'm not sure we should go." "Why?" "The storm. We'll be outside and might get wet. Besides, there might be lightning." "It's not raining yet. How far is it?" "Up the creek about a mile." "And I've never been there before?" "Not when it was like this."

 

She thought for a second while she looked around. When she spoke, her voice was determined. "Then we'll go. I don't care if it rains." "are you sure?" "Absolutely." He looked at the clouds again, noting their approach. "Then we'd better go now," he said. "Can I bring that in for you?" She nodded, handing her bag to him, and he jogged to the house and brought it inside,where he placed it on a chair in the living room. Then he grabbed some bread and put it in a bag, bringing it with him as he left the house. They walked to the canoe, Allie beside him. A little closer than yesterday. "What exactly is this place?" "You'll see." "You're not even going to give me a hint?" "Well," he said, "do you remember when we took the canoe out and watched the sun come up?" "I thought about it this morning. I remember it made me cry." "What you're going to see today makes what you saw then seem ordinary." "I guess I should feel special." He took a few steps before responding. "You are special," he finally said, and the way he said it made her wonder if he wanted to add something else. But he didn't, and Allie smiled a little before glancing away. As she did, she felt the wind in her face and noticed it had picked up since the morning. They reached the dock a moment later. After tossing the bag in the canoe, Noah quickly checked to make sure he hadn't missed anything, then slid the canoe to the water.

 

"Can I do anything?" "No, just get in." After she climbed in, he pushed the canoe farther into the water, close to the dock. Then he gracefully stepped off the dock into the canoe, placing his feet carefully to prevent the canoe from capsizing. Allie was impressed by his agility, knowing that what he had done so quickly and easily was harder than it looked. Allie sat at the front of the canoe, facing backward. He had said something about missing the view when he started to paddle, but she'd shaken her head, saying she was fine the way she was. And it was true.

She could see everything she really wanted to see if she turned her head, but most of all she wanted to watch Noah. It was him she'd come to see, not the creek. His shirt was unbuttoned at the top, and she could see his chest muscles flex with every stroke. His sleeves' were rolled up, too, and she could see the muscles in his arms bulging slightly. His muscles were well developed there from paddling every morning. Artistic, she thought. There's something almost artistic about him when he does this. Something natural, as if being on the water were beyond his control, part of a gene passed on to him from some obscure hereditary pool. When she watched him, she was reminded of how the early explorers must have looked when they'd first discovered this area. She couldn't think of anyone else who remotely resembled him. He was complicated,almost contradictory in so many ways, yet simple, a strangely erotic combination. On the surface he was a country boy, home from war, and he probably saw himself in those terms. Yet there was so much more to him. Perhaps it was the poetry that made him different, or perhaps it was the values his father had instilled in him, growing up. Either way, he seemed to savor life more fully than others appeared to, and that was what had first attracted her to him. "What are you thinking?" She felt her insides jump just a bit as Noah's voice brought her back to the present. She realized she hadn't said much since they'd started, and she appreciated the silence he had allowed her. He'd always been considerate like that. "Good things," she answered quietly, and she saw in his eyes that he knew she was thinking about him. She liked the fact that he knew it, and she hoped he had been thinking about her as well. She understood then that something was stirring within her, as it had so many years ago. Watching him, watching his body move, made her feel it. And as their eyes lingered for a second, she felt the heat in her neck and breasts, and she flushed, turning away before he noticed.

 

"How much farther?" she asked. "Another half mile or so. Not any more than that." A pause. Then, she said: "It's pretty out here. So clean. So quiet. It's almost like going back in time." "In a way it is, I think. The creek flows from the forest. There's not a single farm between here and where it starts, and the water is pure as rain. It's probably as pure as it's ever been." She leaned toward him.

"Tell me, Noah, what do you remember most from the summer we spent together?" "All of it."

 

"Anything in particular?" "No," he said. "You don't remember?" He answered after a moment, quietly, seriously. "No, it's not that. It's not what you're thinking. I was serious when I said 'all of it.' I can remember every moment we were together, and in each of them there was something wonderful. I can't really pick any one time that meant more than any other. The entire summer was perfect, the kind of summer everyone should have. How could I pick one moment over another? "Poets often describe love as an emotion that we can't control, one that overwhelms logic and common sense. That's what it was like for me. I didn't plan on falling in love with you, and I doubt if you planned on falling in love with me. But once we met, it was clear that neither of us could control what was happening to us. We fell in love, despite our differences, and once we did, something rare and beautiful was created. For me, love like that has happened only once, and that's why every minute we spent together has been seared in my memory. I'll never forget a single moment of it.”

Allie stared at him. No one had ever said anything like that to her before. Ever. She didn't know what to say and stayed silent, her face hot. "I'm sorry if I made you feel uncomfortable, Allie. I didn't mean to. But that summer has stayed with me and probably always will. I know it can't be the same between us, but that doesn't change the way I felt about you then." She spoke quietly, feeling warm. "It didn't make me uncomfortable, Noah .... It's just that I don't ever hear things like that. What you said was beautiful. It takes a poet to talk the way you do, and like I said, you're the only poet I've ever met." Peaceful silence descended on them. An osprey cried somewhere in the distance. A mullet splashed near the bank. The paddle moved rhythmically, causing baffles that rocked the boat ever so slightly. The breeze had stopped, and the clouds grew blacker as the canoe moved toward some unknown destination. Allie noticed it all, every sound, every thought. Her senses had come alive, invigorating her, and she felt her mind drifting through the last few weeks. She thought about the anxiety coming here had caused her. The shock at seeing the article, the sleepless nights, her short temper during daylight. Even yesterday she had been afraid and wanted to run away. The tension was gone now, every bit of it, replaced by something else, and she was glad about that as she rode in silence in the old red canoe. She felt strangely satisfied that she'd come, pleased that Noah had turned into the type of man she'd thought he would, pleased that she would live forever with that knowledge. She had seen too many men in the past few years destroyed by war, or time, or even money. It took strength to hold on to inner passion, and Noah had done that. This was a worker's world, not a poet's, and people would have a hard time understanding Noah. America was in full swing now, all the papers said so, and people were rushing forward, leaving behind the horrors of war. She understood the reasons, but they were rushing, like Lon, toward long hours and profits, neglecting the things that brought beauty to the world. Who did she know in Raleigh who took time off to fix a house? Or read Whitman or Eliot, finding images in the mind, thoughts of the spirit? Or hunted dawn from the bow of a canoe? These weren't the things that drove society, but she felt they shouldn't be treated as unimportant. They made living worthwhile. To her it was the same with art, though she had realized it only upon coming here. Or rather, remembered it. She had known it once before, and again she cursed herself for forgetting something as important as creating beauty. Painting was what she was meant to do, she was sure of that now. Her feelings this morning had confirmed it, and she knew that whatever happened, she was going to give it another shot. A fair shot, no matter what anyone said. Would Lon encourage her painting? She remembered showing him one of her paintings a couple of months after they had first started going out. It was an abstract painting and was meant to inspire thought. In a way, it resembled the painting above Noah's fireplace, the one Noah understood completely, though it may have been a touch less passionate. Lon had stared at it, studied it almost, and then had asked her what it was supposed to be. She hadn't bothered to answer. She shook her head then, knowing she wasn't being completely fair. She loved Lon, and always had, for other reasons. Though he wasn't Noah, Lon was a good man, the kind of man she'd always known she would marry. With Lon there would be no surprises, and there was comfort in knowing what the future would bring. He would be a kind husband to her, and she would be a good wife. She would have a home near friends and family, children, a respectable place in society.

It was the kind of life she'd always expected to live, the kind of life she wanted to live. And though she wouldn't describe theirs as a passionate relationship, she had convinced herself long ago that this wasn't necessary to be fulfilled in a relationship, even with a person she intended to marry. Passion would fade in time, and things like companionship and compatibility would take its place. She and Lon had this, and she had assumed this was all she needed. But now, as she watched Noah rowing, she questioned this basic assumption. He exuded sexuality in everything he did, everything he was, and she caught herself thinking about him in a way that an engaged woman shouldn't. She tried not to stare and glanced away often, but the easy way he moved his body made it hard to keep her eyes from him for long. "Here we are," Noah said as he guided the canoe toward some trees near the bank. Allie looked around, not seeing anything. "Where is it?" "Here," he said again, pointing the canoe at an old tree that had fallen over, obscuring an opening almost completely hidden from view. He guided the canoe around the tree, and both of them had to lower their heads to keep from bumping them. "Close your eyes," he whispered, and Allie did, bringing her hands to her face. She heard the baffles of the water and felt the movement of the canoe as he propelled it forward, away from the pull of the creek. "Okay," he finally said after he'd stopped paddling. "You can open them now."