They started toward the river and turned on a path near the bank. She let go of his hand, surprising him, and walked on with just enough distance between them so that they couldn't accidentally touch. He looked at her. She was pretty still, with thick hair and soft eyes, and she moved so gracefully that it almost seemed as though she were gliding. He'd seen beautiful women before, though, women who caught his eye, but to his mind they usually lacked the traits he found most desirable. Traits like intelligence, confidence, strength of spirit, passion, traits that inspired others to greatness, traits he aspired to himself. Allie had those traits, he knew, and as they walked now, he sensed them once again lingering beneath the surface. "A living poem" had always been the words that came to mind when he tried to describe her to others. "How long have you been back here?" she asked as the path gave way to a small grass hill. "Since last December. I worked up north for a while, then spent the last three years in Europe." She looked to him with questions in her eyes. "The war?" He nodded and she went on. "I thought you might be there. I'm glad you made it out okay." "Me too," he said. "Are you glad to be back home?" "Yeah. My roots are here. This is where I'm supposed to be." He paused. "But what about you?" He asked the question softly, suspecting the worst. It was a long moment before she answered. "I'm engaged."
He looked down when she said it, suddenly feeling just a bit weaker. So that was it. That's what she needed to tell him. "Congratulations," he finally said, wondering how convincing he sounded. "When's the big day?" "Three weeks from Saturday. Lon wanted a November wedding." "Lon?" "Lon Hammond Jr. My fiancé." He nodded, not surprised. The Hammonds were one of the most powerful and influential families in the state. Cotton money. Unlike that of his own father, the death of Lon Hammond Sr. had made the front page of the newspaper. "I've heard of them. His father built quite a business. Did Lon take over for him?" She shook her head. "No, he's a lawyer. He has his own practice downtown." "With his name, he must be busy." "He is. He works a lot."
He thought he heard something in her tone, and the next question came automatically. "Does he treat you well?" She didn't answer right away, as if she were considering the question for the first time. Then: "Yes. He's a good man, Noah. You would like him." Her voice was distant when she answered, or at least he thought it was. Noah wondered if it was just his mind playing tricks on him. "How's your daddy doing?" she asked. Noah took a couple of steps before answering. "He passed on earlier this year, right after I got back." "I'm sorry," she said softly, knowing how much he had meant to Noah. He nodded, and the two walked in silence for a moment. They reached the top of the hill and stopped. The oak tree was in the distance, with the sun glowing orange behind it. Allie could feel his eyes on her as she stared in that direction.' "A lot of memories there, Allie." She smiled. "I know. I saw it when I came in. Do you remember the day we spent there?" "Yes," he answered, volunteering no more. "Do you ever think about it?" "Sometimes," he said. "Usually when I'm working out this way. It sits on my property now." "You bought it?"
"I just couldn't bear to see it turned into kitchen cabinets." She laughed under her breath, feeling strangely pleased about that. "Do you still read poetry ?" He nodded. "Yeah. I never stopped. I guess it's in my blood." "Do you know, you're the only poet I've ever met." "I'm no poet. I read, but I can't write a verse. I've tried." "You're still a poet, Noah Taylor Calhoun." Her voice softened. "I still think about it a lot. It was the first time anyone ever read poetry to me before. In fact, it's the only time." Her comment made both of them drift back and remember as they slowly circled back to the house, following a new path that passed near the dock. As the sun dropped a little lower and the sky turned orange, he asked: "So, how long are you staying?" "I don't know. Not long. Maybe until tomorrow or the next day." "Is your fiancé here on business?" She shook her head. "No, he's still in Raleigh." Noah raised his eyebrows. "Does he know you're here?" She shook her head again and answered slowly. "No. I told him I was looking for antiques. He wouldn't understand my coming here."
Noah was a little surprised by her answer. It was one thing to come and visit, but it was an entirely different matter to hide the truth from her fiancé. "You didn't have to come here to tell me you were engaged. You could have written me instead, or even called." "I know. But for some reason, I had to do it in person." "Why?" She hesitated. "I don't know . . . ," she said, trailing off, and the way she said it made him believe her. The gravel crunched beneath their feet as they walked in silence for a few steps. Then he asked: "Allie, do you love him?" She answered automatically. "Yes, I love him." The words hurt. But again, he thought he heard something in her tone, as if she were saying it to convince herself. He stopped and gently took her shoulders in his hands, making her face him. The fading sunlight reflected in her eyes as he spoke. "If you're happy, Allie, and you love him, I won't try to stop you from going back to him. But if there's a part of you that isn't sure, then don't do it. This isn't
the kind of thing you go into halfway. "Her answer came almost too quickly. "I'm making the right decision, Noah.” He stared for a second, wondering if he believed her. Then he nodded and the two began to walk again. After a moment he said: "I'm not making this easy for you, am I?" She smiled a little. "It's okay. I really can't blame you." "I'm sorry anyway." "Don't be. There's no reason to be sorry. I'm the one who should be apologizing. Maybe I should have written." He shook his head. "To be honest, I'm still glad you came. Despite everything. It's good to see you again." "Thank you, Noah." "Do you think it would be possible to start over ?" She looked at him curiously. "You were the best friend I ever had, Allie. I'd still like to be friends, even if you are engaged, and even if it is just for a couple of days. How about we just kind of get to know each other again?" She thought about it, thought about staying or leaving, and decided that since he knew about her engagement, it would probably be all right. Or at least not wrong. She smiled slightly and nodded. "I'd like that." "Good. How about dinner? I know a place that serves the best crab in town." "Sounds great. Where?"
"My house. I've had the traps out all week, and I saw that I had some good ones caged a couple days ago. Do you mind?" "No, that sounds fine." He smiled and pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. "Great. They're at the dock. I'll just be a couple of minutes." Allie watched him walk away and noticed the tension she'd felt when telling him about her engagement was beginning to fade. Closing her eyes, she ran her hands through her hair and let the light breeze fan her cheek. She took a deep breath and held it for a moment,feeling the muscles in her shoulders further relax as she exhaled. Finally, opening her eyes, she stared at the beauty that surrounded her. She always loved evenings like this, evenings where the faint aroma of autumn leaves rode on the backs of soft southern winds. She loved the trees and the sounds they made. Listening to them helped her relax even more. After a moment, she turned toward Noah and looked at him almost as a stranger might. God, he looked good. Even after all this time. She watched him as he reached for a rope that hung in the water. He began to pull it, and despite the darkening sky, she saw the muscles in his arm flex as he lifted the cage from the water. He let it hang over the river for a moment and shook it, letting most of the water escape. After setting the trap on the dock, he opened it and began to remove the crabs one by one, placing them into a bucket. She started walking toward him then, listening to the crickets chirp, and remembered a lesson from childhood. She counted the number of chirps in a minute and added twenty‐nine. Sixty‐seven degrees, she thought as she smiled to herself. She didn't know if it was accurate, but it felt about right. As she walked, she looked around and realized she had forgotten how fresh and beautiful everything seemed here. Over her shoulder, she saw the house in the distance. He had left a couple of lights on, and it seemed to be the only house around. At least the only one with electricity. Out here, outside the town limits, nothing was certain. Thousands of country homes still lacked the luxury of indoor lighting. She stepped on the dock and it creaked under her foot. The sound reminded her of a rusty squeeze‐box, and Noah glanced up and winked, then went back to checking the crabs, making sure they were the right size. She walked to the rocker that sat on the dock and touched it, running her hand along the back. She could picture him sitting in it, fishing, thinking, reading. It was old and weather‐beaten, rough feeling. She wondered how much time he spent here alone, and she wondered about his thoughts at times like those. "It was my daddy's chair," he said, not looking up, and she nodded. She saw bats in the sky, and frogs had joined the crickets in their evening harmony. She walked to the other side of the dock, feeling a sense of closure. A compulsion had driven her here, and for the first time in three weeks the feeling was gone. She'd somehow needed Noah to know about her engagement, to understand, to accept it‐‐she was sure of that now‐‐and while thinking of him, she was reminded of something they'd shared from the summer they were together. With head down, she paced around slowly, looking for it until she found it‐‐the carving. Noah loves Allie, in a heart. Carved into the dock a few days before she'd left. A breeze broke the stillness and chilled her, making her cross her arms. She stood that way, alternately looking down at the carving and then toward the river, until she heard him reach her side. She could feel his closeness, his warmth, as she spoke.
"It's so peaceful here," she 'said, her voice dreamlike. "I know. I come down here a lot now just to be close to the water. It makes me feel good." "I would, too, if I were you." "Come on, let's go. The mosquitoes are getting vicious, and I'm starved." The sky had turned black, and Noah started toward the house, Allie right beside him.
In the silence her mind wandered, and she felt a little light‐headed as she walked along the path. She wondered what he was thinking about her being here and wasn't exactly sure if she knew herself. When they reached the house a couple of minutes later, Clem greeted them with a wet nose in the wrong place. Noah motioned her away, and she left with her tail between her legs. He pointed to her car. "Did you leave anything in there that you need to get out?" "No, I got in earlier and unpacked already." Her voice sounded different to her, as if the years had suddenly been undone. "Good enough," he said as he reached the back porch and started up the steps. He set the bucket by the door, then led the way inside, heading toward the kitchen. It was on the immediate right, large and smelling of new wood. The cabinets had been done in oak, as was the floor, and the windows were large and faced east, allowing the light from morning sun. It was a tasteful restoration, not overdone as was common when homes like this were rebuilt.
"Do you mind if I look around?" "No,go ahead. I did some shopping earlier,and I still have to put the groceries away." Their eyes met for a second, and Allie knew as she turned that he continued to watch her as she left the room. Inside she felt that little twitch again. She toured the house for the next few minutes, walking through the rooms, noticing how wonderful it looked. By the time she'd finished, it was hard to remember how run‐down it had been. She came down the stairs, turned toward the kitchen, and saw his profile. For a second he looked like a young man of seventeen again, and it made her pause a split second before going on. Damn, she thought, get a hold of yourself. Remember that you're engaged now. He was standing by the counter, a couple of cabinet doors open wide, empty grocery bags on the floor, whistling quietly. He smiled at her before putting a few more cans into one of the cabinets. She stopped a few feet from him and leaned against the counter, one leg over the other. She shook her head, amazed at how much he had done. "It's unbelievable, Noah. How long did the restoration take?" He looked up from the last bag he was unpacking. "Almost a year." "Did you do it yourself?" He laughed under his breath. "No. I always thought I would when I was young, and I started that way. But it was just too much. It would have taken years, and so I ended up hiring some people.., actually a lot of people. But even with them, it was still a lot of work, and most of the time I didn't stop until past midnight." "Why'd you work so hard?" Ghosts, he wanted to say, but didn't. "I don't know. Just wanted to finish, I guess. Do you want anything to drink before I start dinner ?" "What do you have?" "Not much, really. Beer, tea, coffee." "Tea sounds good." He gathered the grocery bags and put them away, then walked to a small room off the kitchen before returning with a box of tea. He pulled out a couple of teabags and set them by the stove, then filled the teapot. After putting it on the burner, he lit a match, and she heard the sound of flames as they came to life. "It'll be just a minute," he said. "This stove heats up pretty quick." "That's fine." When the teapot whistled, he poured two cups and handed one to her. She smiled and took a sip, then motioned toward the window. "I bet the kitchen is beautiful when the morning light shines in." He nodded. "It is. I had larger windows put in on this side of the house for just that reason. Even in the bedrooms upstairs." "I'm sure your guests enjoy that. Unless of course they want to sleep late." "Actually, I haven't had any guests stay over yet. Since my daddy passed on, I don't really know who to invite." By his tone, she knew he was just making conversation. Yet for some reason it made Her feel.., lonely. He seemed to realize how she was feeling, but before she could dwell on it, he changed the subject. "I'm going to get the crabs in to marinate for a few minutes before I steam 'em,"
he said, putting his cup on the counter. He went to the cupboard and removed a large pot with a steamer and lid. He brought the pot to the sink, added water, then carried it to the stove. "Can I give you a hand with something?" He answered over his shoulder. "Sure. How about cutting up some vegetables for the fryer. There's plenty in the icebox, and you can find a bowl over there." He motioned to the cabinet near the sink, and she took another sip of tea before setting her cup on the counter and retrieving the bowl. She carried it to the icebox and found some okra, zucchini, onions, and carrots on the bottom shelf.
Noah joined her in front of the open door, and she moved to make room for him. She could smell him as he stood next to her‐‐clean, familiar, distinctive‐‐and felt his arm brush against her as he leaned over and reached inside. He removed a beer and a bottle of hot sauce, then returned to the stove. Noah opened the beer and poured it in the water, then added the hot sauce and some other seasoning as well. After stirring the water to make sure the powders were dissolved, he went to the back door to get the crabs. He paused for a moment before going back inside and stared at Allie, watching her cut the carrots. As he did that, he wondered again why she had come, especially now that she was engaged. None of this seemed to make much sense to him. But then, Allie had always been surprising. He smiled to himself, remembering back to the way she had been. Fiery, spontaneous, passion‐ate‐‐as he imagined most artists to be. And she was definitely that. Artistic talent like hers was a gift. He remembered seeing some paintings in the museums in New York and thinking that her work was just as good as what he had seen there. She had given him a painting before she'd left that summer. It hung above the fireplace in the living room. She'd called it a picture of her dreams, and to him it had seemed extremely sensual. When he looked at it, and he often did late in the evening, he could see desire in the colors and the lines, and if he focused carefully, he could imagine what she had been thinking with every stroke. A dog barked in the distance, and Noah realized he had been standing with the door open a long time. He quickly closed it, turning back to the kitchen. And as he walked, he wondered if she had noticed how long he'd been gone. "How's it going?" he asked, seeing she was almost finished. "Good. I'm almost done here. Anything else for dinner?" "I have some homemade bread that I was planning on." "Homemade?"
"From a neighbor," he said as he put the pail in the sink. He started the faucet and began to rinse the crabs, holding them under the water, then letting them scurry around the sink while he rinsed the next one. Allie picked up her cup and came over to watch him. "Aren't you afraid they'll pinch you when you grab them?" "No. Just grab 'em like this," he said, demonstrating, and she smiled. "I forget you've done this your whole life." "New Bern's small, but it does teach you how to do the things that matter." She leaned against the counter, standing close to him, and emptied her cup. When the crabs were ready he put them in the pot on the stove. He washed his hands, turning to speak to her as he did so. "You want to sit on the porch for a few minutes? I'd like to let 'em soak for a half hour." "Sure," she said. He wiped his hands, and together they went to the back porch. Noah flipped on the light as they went outside, and he sat in the older rocker, offering the newer one to her. When he saw her cup was empty, he went inside for a moment and emerged with another cup of tea and a beer for himself. He held out the cup and she took it, sipping again before she set it on the table beside the chairs. "You were sitting out here when I came, weren't you?" He answered as he made himself comfortable. "Yeah. I sit out here every night. It's a habit HOW." "I can see why," she said as she looked around. "So, what is it you do these days?" "Actually, I don't do anything but work on the house right now. It satisfies my creative urges." "How can you... I mean..." "Morris Goldman." "Excuse me?" He smiled. "My old boss from up north. His name was Morris Goldman. He offered me a part of the business just as I enlisted and died before I got home. When I got back to the States, his lawyers gave me a check big enough to buy this place and fix it up." She laughed under her breath. "You always told me you'd find a way to do it." They both sat quietly for a moment, thinking back again. Allie took another sip of tea. "Do you remember sneaking over here the night you first told me about this place?" He nodded, and she went on: "I got home a little late that evening, and my parents were furious when I finally came in. I can still picture my daddy standing in the living room smoking a cigarette, my mother on the sofa staring straight ahead. I swear, they looked as if a family member had died. That was the first time my parents knew I was serious about you, and my mother had a long talk with me later that night. She said to me, 'I'm sure you think that I don't understand what you're going through, but I do. It's just that sometimes, our future is dictated by what we are, as opposed to what we want.' I remember being really hurt when she said that." "You told me about it the next day. It hurt my feelings, too. I liked your parents, and I had no idea they didn't like me." "It wasn't that they didn't like you. They didn't think you deserved me." "There's not much difference." There was a sadness in his voice when he responded, and she knew he'was right to feel that way. She looked toward the stars while she ran her hand through her hair, pulling back the strands that had fallen onto her face. "I know that. I always did. Maybe that's why my mother and I always seem to have a distance between us when we talk." "How do you feel about it now?" "The same as I did back then. That it's wrong,that it isn't fair. It was a terrible thing for a girl to learn. That status is more important than feelings.'' Noah smiled softly at her answer but said nothing. "I've thought about you ever since that summer,'' she said. "You have?" "Why wouldn't you think so?" She seemed genuinely surprised. "You never answered my letters." "You wrote ?" "Dozens of letters. I wrote you for two years without receiving a single reply." She slowly shook her head before lowering her eyes. "I didn't know... ," she finally said, quietly, and he knew it must have been her mother, checking the mail, removing the letters without her knowledge. It was what he had always suspected, and he watched as Allie came to the same realization. "It was wrong of her to do that, Noah, and I'm sorry she did. But try to understand. Once I left, she probably thought it would be easier for me to just let it go.
She never understood how much you meant to me, and to be honest, I don't even know if she ever loved my father the way I loved you. In her mind, she was just trying to protect my feelings, and she probably thought the best way to do that was to hide the letters you sent." "That wasn't her decision to make," he said quietly. "I know."
"Would it have made a difference even if you'd got them?" "Of course. I always wondered what you were up to?" "No, I mean with us. Do you think we would have made it?" It took a moment for her to answer. "I don't know, Noah. I really don't, and you don't either. We're not the same people we were then. We've changed, we've grown. Both of us." She paused. He didn't respond, and in the silence she looked toward the creek. She went on: "But yes, Noah, I think we would have. At least, I'd like to think we would have." He nodded, looked down, then turned away. "What's Lon like?" She hesitated, not expecting the question. Bringing up Lon's name brought slight feelings of guilt to the surface, and for a moment she didn't know how to answer. She reached for her cup, took another sip of tea, and listened as a woodpecker tapped in the distance. She spoke quietly. "Lon's handsome, charming, and successful, and most of my friends are insanely jealous. They think he's perfect, and in a lot of ways he is. He's kind to me, he makes me laugh, and I know he loves me in his own way." She paused for a moment, collecting her thoughts. "But there's always going to be something missing in our relationship." She surprised herself with her answer but knew it was true nonetheless. And she also knew by looking at him that Noah had suspected the answer in advance. "Why?" She smiled weakly and shrugged as she answered. Her voice was barely above a whisper. "I guess I still look for the kind of love we had that summer." Noah thought about what she had said for a long while, thinking about the relationships he'd had since he'd last seen her. "How about you?" she asked. "Did you ever think about us?" "All the time. I still do." "Are you seeing anyone?" "No," he answered, shaking his head. Both of them seemed to think about that, trying but finding it impossible to displace from their minds. Noah finished his beer, surprised that he had emptied it so quickly. "I'm going to go start the water. Can I get you anything?" She shook her head, and Noah went to the kitchen and put the crabs in the steamer and the bread in the oven. He found some flour and cornstarch for the vegetables, coated them, and put some grease into the frying pan. After turning the heat on low, he set a timer and pulled another beer from the icebox before heading back to the porch. And while he was doing those things, he thought about Allie and the love that was missing from both their lives. Allie, too, was thinking. About Noah, about herself, about a lot of things. For a moment she wished she weren't engaged but then quickly cursed herself. It wasn't Noah she loved; she loved what they once had been. Besides, it was normal to feel this way. Her first real love, the only man she'd ever been with‐‐how could she expect to forget him? Yet was it normal for her insides to twitch whenever he came near? Was it normal to confess things she could never tell anyone else? Was it normal to come here three weeks from her wedding day? "No, it's not," she finally whispered to herself as she looked to the evening sky. "There's nothing normal about any of this." Noah came out at that moment and she smiled at him, glad he'd come back so she didn't have to think about it anymore. "It's going to take a few minutes," he said as he sat back down. "That's fine. I'm not that hungry yet." He looked at her then, and she saw the softness in his eyes. "I'm glad you came, Allie," he said. "Me too. I almost didn't, though." "Why did you come?" I was compelled, she wanted to say, but didn't. "Just to see you, to find out what you've been up to. To see how you are." He wondered if that was all but didn't question further. Instead he changed the subject. "By the way, I've been meaning to ask, do you still paint?" She shook her head. "Not anymore." He was stunned. "Why not? You have so much talent." "I don't know " "Sure you do. You stopped for a reason."He was right. She'd had a reason."It's a long story." "I've got all night," he answered. "Did you really think I was talented?" she asked quietly. "C'mon," he said, reaching for her hand, "I want to show you something."