She got up and followed him through the door to the living room. He stopped in front of the fireplace and pointed to the painting that hung above the mantel. She gasped, surprised she hadn't noticed it earlier, more surprised it was here at all. "You kept it?" "Of course I kept it. It's wonderful." She gave him a skeptical look, and he explained.
"It makes me feel alive when I look at it. Sometimes I have to get up and touch it. It's just so real‐‐the shapes, the shadows, the colors. I even dream about it sometimes. It's incredible, Allie‐‐I can stare at it for hours." "You're serious," she said, shocked. "As serious as I've ever been." She didn't say anything. "You mean to tell me no one has ever told you that before?" "My professor did," she finally said, "but I guess I didn't believe him." He knew there was more. Allie looked away before continuing. "I've been drawing and painting since I was a child. I guess that once I got a little older, I began to think I was good at it. I enjoyed it, too. I remember working on this painting that summer, adding to it every day, changing it as our relationship changed. I don't even remember how it started or what I wanted it to be, but somehow it evolved into this. "I remember being unable to stop painting after I went home that summer. I think it was my way of avoiding the pain I was going through. Anyway, I ended up majoring in art in college because it was something I had to do; I remember spending hours in the studio all by myself and enjoying every minute. I loved the freedom I felt when I created, the way it made me feel inside to make something beautiful. Just before I graduated, my professor, who happened to also be the critic for the paper, told me I had a lot of talent. He told me I should try my luck as an artist. But I didn't listen to him." She stopped there, gathering her thoughts. "My parents didn't think it was proper for someone like me to paint for a living. I just stopped after a while. I haven't touched a brush in years." She stared at the painting. "Do you think you'll ever paint again?" "I'm not sure if I can anymore. It's been a long time." "You can still do it, Allie. I know you can. You have a talent that comes from inside you, from your heart, not from your fingers. What you have can't ever go away. It's what other people only dream about. You're an artist, Allie."
The words were spoken with such sincerity that she knew he wasn't saying it just to be nice. He truly believed in her ability, and for some reason that meant more to her than she expected. But something else happened then, something even more powerful. Why it happened, she never knew, but this was when the chasm began to close for Allie, the chasm she had erected in her life to separate the pain from the pleasure.
And she suspected then, maybe not consciously, that there was more to this than even she cared to admit. But at that moment she still wasn't completely aware of it, and she turned to face him. She reached over and touched his hand, hesitantly, gently, amazed that after all these years he'd somehow known exactly what she'd needed to hear. When their eyes locked, she once again realized how special he was.
And for just a fleeting moment, a tiny wisp of time that hung in the air like fireflies in summer skies, she wondered if she was in love with him again. The timer went off in the kitchen, a small ding, and Noah turned away, breaking the moment, strangely affected by what had just happened between them. Her eyes had spoken to him and whispered something he longed to hear, yet he couldn't stop the voice inside his head, her voice, that had told him of her love for another man. He silently cursed the timer as he walked to the kitchen and removed the bread from the oven. He almost burned his fingers, dropped the loaf on the counter, and saw that the frying pan was ready. He added the vegetables and heard them begin to crackle. Then, muttering to himself, he got some butter out of the icebox, spread some on the bread, and melted a bit more for the crabs. Allie had followed him into the kitchen and cleared her throat. "Can I get the table ready?" Noah used the bread knife as a pointer. "Sure,plates are over there. Utensils and napkins there. Make sure you get plenty‐crabs can be messy, so we'll need them." He couldn't look at her as he spoke. He didn't want to realize he'd been mistaken about what had just happened between them. He didn't want it to be a mistake. Allie, too, was wondering about the moment and feeling warm as she thought of it. The words he'd spoken replayed in her head as she found everything she needed for the table: plates, place settings, salt and pepper. Noah handed her the bread as she was finishing the table, and their fingers touched briefly. He turned his attention back to the frying pan and turned the vegetables. He lifted the lid of the steamer, saw the crabs still had a minute, and let them cook some more. He was more composed now and returned to small talk, easy conversation. "Have you ever had crab before?" "A couple of times. But only in salads." He laughed. "Then you're in for an adventure. Hold on a second." He disappeared upstairs for a moment, then returned with a navy blue button‐down shirt. He held it open for her. "Here, put this on. I don't want you to stain your dress." Allie put it on and smelled the fragrance that lingered in the shirt‐‐his smell, distinctive, natural. "Don't worry," he said, seeing her expression, "it's clean."
She laughed. "I know. It just reminds me of our first real date. You gave me your jacket that night, remember?" He nodded. "Yeah, I remember. Fin and Sarah were with us. Fin kept elbowing me the whole way back to your parents' house, trying to get me to hold your hand." "You didn't, though." "No," he answered, shaking his head. "Why not?" "Shy, maybe, or afraid. I don't know. It just didn't seem like the right thing to do at the time." "Come to think of it, you were kind of shy, weren't you." "I prefer the words 'quiet confidence,'" he answered with a wink, and she smiled. The vegetables and crabs were ready about the same time. "Be careful, they're hot," he said as he handed them to her, and they sat across from each other at the small wooden table. Then, realizing the tea was Still on the counter, Allie stood and brought it over. After putting some vegetables and bread on their plates, Noah added a crab, and Allie sat for a moment, staring at it. "It looks like a bug." "A good bug, though," he said. "Here, let me show you how it's done." He demonstrated quickly, making it look easy, removing the meat and putting it on her plate.
Allie crushed the legs too hard the first time and the time after that, and had to use her fingers to get the shells away from the meat. She felt clumsy at first, worrying that he saw every mistake, but then she realized her own insecurity. He didn't care about things like that. He never had.
"So, whatever happened to Fin?" she asked. It took a second for him to answer. "Fin died in the war. His destroyer was torpedoed in forty‐three." "I'm sorry," she said. "I know he was a good friend of yours." His voice changed, a little deeper now. "He was. I think of him a lot these days. I especially remember the last time I saw him. I'd come home to say good‐bye before I enlisted, and we ran into each other again. He was a banker here, like his daddy was, and he and I spent a lot of time together over the next week. Sometimes I think I talked him into joining. I don't think he would have, except that I was going to." "That's not fair," she said, sorry she'd brought up the subject. "You're right. I just miss him, is all." "I liked him, too. He made me laugh." "He was always good at that." She looked at him slyly. "He had a crush on me, you know." "I know. He told me about it." "He did? What did he say?"
Noah shrugged. "The usual for him. That he had to fight you off with a stick. That you chased him constantly, that sort of thing." She laughed quietly. "Did you believe him?" "Of course," he answered, "why wouldn't I?" "You men always stick together," she said as she reached across the table, poking his arm with her finger. She went on. "So, tell me everything you've been up to since I saw you last." They started to talk then, making up for lost time. Noah talked about leaving New Bern, about working in the shipyard and at the scrap yard in New Jersey. He spoke fondly of Morris Goldman and touched on the war a little, avoiding most of the details, and told her about his father and how much he missed him. Allie talked about going to college, painting, and her hours spent volunteering at the hospital. She talked about her family and friends and the charities she was involved with. Neither of them brought up anybody they had dated since they'd last seen each other.
Even Lon was ignored, and though both of them noticed the omission, neither mentioned it. Afterward Allie tried to remember the last time she and Lon had talked this way. Although he listened well and they seldom argued, he was not the type of man to talk like this. Like her father, he wasn't comfortable sharing his thoughts and feelings.
She'd tried to explain that she needed to be closer to him, but it had never seemed to make a difference.
But sitting here now, she realized what she'd been missing. The sky grew darker and the moon rose higher as the evening wore on. And without either of them being conscious of it, they began to regain the intimacy, the bond of familiarity, they had once shared. They finished dinner, both pleased with the meal, neither talking much now. Noah looked at his watch and saw that it was getting late. The stars were out in full, the crickets a little quieter. He had enjoyed talking to Allie and wondered if he'd talked too much, wondered what she'd thought about his life, hoping it would somehow make a difference, if it could. Noah got up and refilled the teapot. They both brought the dishes to the sink and cleaned up the table, and he poured two more cups of hot water, adding teabags to both. "How about the porch again?" he asked, handing her the cup, and she agreed, leading the way. He grabbed a quilt for her in case she got cold, and soon they had taken their places again, the quilt over her legs, rockers moving. Noah watched her from the corner of his eye. God, she's beautiful, he thought. And inside, he ached. For something had happened during dinner. Quite simply, he had fallen in love again. He knew that now as they sat next to one another.
Fallen in love with a new Allie, not just her memory. But then, he had never really stopped, and this, he realized, was his destiny. "It's been quite a night," he said, his voice softer now. "Yes, it has," she said, "a wonderful night." Noah turned to the stars, their twinkling lights reminding him that she would be leaving soon, and he felt almost empty inside. This was a night he wanted never to end. How should he tell her? What could he say that would make her stay? He didn't know. And thus the decision was made to say nothing. And he realized then that he had failed. The rockers moved in quiet rhythm. Bats again, over the river. Moths kissing the porch light. Somewhere, he knew, there were people making love. "Talk to me," she finally said, her voice sensual. Or was his mind playing tricks? "What should I say?" "Talk like you did to me under the oak tree." And he did, reciting distant passages, toasting the night. Whitman and Thomas, because he loved the images. Tennyson and Browning, because their themes felt so familiar. She rested her head against the back of the rocker, closing her eyes, growing just a bit warmer by the time he'd finished. It wasn't just the poems or his voice that did it. It was all of it, the whole greater than the sum of the parts. She didn't try to break it down, didn't want to, because it wasn't meant to be listened to that way. Poetry, she thought, wasn't written to be analyzed; it was meant to inspire without reason, to touch without understanding. Because of him, she'd gone to a few poetry readings offered by the English department while in college. She'd sat and listened to different people, different poems, but had stopped soon after, discouraged that no one inspired her or seemed as inspired as true lovers of poetry should be. They rocked for a while, drinking tea, sitting quietly, drifting in their thoughts. The compulsion that had driven her here was gone now‐‐she was glad for this‐‐but she worried about the feelings that had taken its place, the stirrings that had begun to sift and swirl in her pores like gold dust in river pans. She'd tried to deny them, hide from them, but now she realized that she didn't want them to stop. It had been years since she'd felt this way. Lon could not evoke these feelings in her. He never had and probably never would. Maybe that was why she had never been to bed with him. He had tried before, many times, using everything from flowers to guilt, and she had always used the excuse that she wanted to wait until marriage. He took it well, usually, and she sometimes wondered how hurt he would be if he ever found out about Noah. But there was something else that made her want to wait, and it had to do with Lon himself. He was driven in his work, and it always commanded most of his attention. Work came first, and for him there was no time for poems and wasted evenings and rocking on porches. She knew this was why he was successful, and part of her respected him for that. But she also sensed it wasn't enough. She wanted something else, something different, something more. Passion and romance, perhaps, or maybe quiet conversations in candlelit rooms, or perhaps something as simple as not being second. Noah, too, was sifting through his thoughts. To him, the evening would be remembered as one of the most special times he had ever had. As he rocked, he remembered it all in detail, then remembered it again. Everything she had done seemed somehow electric to him, charged. Now, sitting beside her, he wondered if she'd ever dreamed the same things he had in the years they'd been apart. Had she ever dreamed of them holding each other again and kissing in soft moonlight? Or did she go further and dream of their naked bodies, which had been kept separate for far too long .... He looked to the stars and remembered the thousands of empty nights he had spent since they'd last seen each other. Seeing her again brought all those feelings to the surface, and he found it impossible to press them back down. He knew then he wanted to make love to her again and to have her love in return. It was what he needed most in the world. But he also realized it could never be. Now that she was engaged. Allie knew by his silence that he was thinking about her and found that she reveled in it. She didn't know what his thoughts were exactly, didn't care really, just knew they were about her and that was enough. She thought about their conversation at dinner and wondered about loneliness. For some reason she couldn't picture him reading poetry to someone else or even sharing his dreams with another woman. He didn't seem the type. Either that, or she didn't want to believe it. She put down the tea, then ran her hands through her hair, closing her eyes as she did so. "Are you tired?" he asked, finally breaking free from his thoughts. "A little. I should really be going in a couple of minutes." "I know," he said, nodding, his tone neutral. She didn't get up right away. Instead she picked up the cup and drank the last swallow of tea, feeling it warm her throat. She took the evening in. Moon higher now, wind in the trees, temperature dropping. She looked at Noah next. The scar on his face was visible from the side. She wondered if it had happened during the war, then wondered if he'd ever been wounded at all. He hadn't mentioned it and she hadn't asked, mostly because she didn't want to imagine him being hurt. "I should go," she finally said, handing the quilt back to him. Noah nodded, then stood without a word. He carried the quilt, and the two of them walked to her car while fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. She started to take off the shirt he'd loaned her as he opened the door, but he stopped her. "Keep it," he said. "I want you to have it." She didn't ask why, because she wanted to keep it, too. She readjusted it and crossed her arms afterward to ward off the chill. For some reason, as she stood there she was reminded of standing on her front porch after a high school dance, waiting for a kiss. "I had a great time tonight," he said. "Thank you for finding me."
"I did, too," she answered. He summoned his courage. "Will I see you tomorrow?" A simple question. She knew what the answer should be, especially if she wanted to keep her life simple. "I don't think we should," was all she had to say, and it would end right here and now. But for a second she didn't say anything. The demon of choice confronted her then, teased her, challenged her. Why couldn't she say it? She didn't know. But as she looked in his eyes to find the answer she needed, she saw the man she'd once fallen in love with, and suddenly it all came clear. "I'd like that." Noah was surprised. He hadn't expected her to answer this way. He wanted to touch her then, to take her in his arms, but he didn't. "Can you be here about noon?" "Sure. What do you want to do?" "You'll see," he answered. "I know just the place to go." "Have I ever been there before?" "No, but it's a special place." "Where is it?" "It's a surprise." "Will I like it?" "You'll love it," he said. She turned away before he could attempt a kiss. She didn't know if he would try but knew for some reason that if he did, she would have a hard time stopping him. She couldn't handle that right now, with everything going through her head. She slid behind the wheel, breathing a sigh of relief. He shut the door for her, and she started the engine. As the car idled, she rolled down the window just a bit. "See you tomorrow," she said, her eyes reflecting the moonlight. Noah waved as she backed the car out. She turned it around, then drove up the lane, heading toward town. He watched the car until the lights vanished behind far‐off oak trees and the engine noise was gone. Clem wandered up to him and he squatted down to pet her, paying special attention to her neck, scratching the spot she couldn't reach anymore. After he looked up the road one last time, they returned to the back porch side by side. He sat in the rocker again, this time alone, trying once again to fathom the evening that had just passed. Thinking about it. Replaying it. Seeing it again. Hearing it again. Running it by in slow motion. He didn't feel like playing his guitar now, didn't feel like reading. Didn't know what he felt. "She's engaged," he finally whispered, and then was silent for hours, his rocker making the only noise. The night was quiet now, with little activity except for Clem, who visited him occasionally, checking on him as if to ask "Are you all right?"
And sometime after midnight on that clear October evening, it all rushed inward and Noah was overcome with longing. And if anyone had seen him, they would have seen what looked like an old man, someone who'd aged a lifetime in just a couple of hours. Someone bent over in his rocker with his face in his hands and tears in his eyes. He didn't know how to stop them.
Lon hung up the phone. He had called at seven, then at eight‐thirty, and now he
checked his watch again. Nine forty‐five. Where was she? He knew she was where she had said she would be because he had spoken to the manager earlier. Yes, she had checked in and he had last seen her around six. Going to dinner, he thought. No, he hadn't seen her since. Lon shook his head and leaned back in his chair. He was the last one in the office, as usual, and everything was quiet. But that was normal with an ongoing trial, even if the trial was going well. Law was his passion, and the late hours alone gave him the opportunity to catch up on his work without interruption.
He knew he would win the case because he mastered the law and charmed the jury. He always did, and losses were infrequent now. Part of it came from being able to select the cases he had the expertise to win. He had reached that level in his practice. Only a select few in the city had that kind of stature, and his earnings reflected that. But the more important part of his success came from hard work. He had always paid attention to details, especially when he'd begun his practice. Little things, obscure things, and it had become a habit now. Whether it was a matter of law or presentation, he was diligent in his study, and it had won him a few cases early in his career when he should have lost.
And now, a little detail bothered him. Not about the case. No, that was fine. It was something else. Something about Allie. But damn, he couldn't put his finger on it.
He was fine when she'd left this morning. At least he thought he was. But sometime after her call, maybe an hour or so, something clicked in his mind. The little detail. Detail. Something insignificant? Something important? Think... think... Damn, what was it? His mind clicked. Something... something.., something said? Something had been said? Yes, that was it. He knew it. But what was it? Had Allie said anything on the phone? That had been when it started, and he ran through the conversation again. No, nothing out of the ordinary. But that was it, he was sure now. What had she said? Her trip was good, she had checked in, had done some shopping. Left her number. That's about all.
He thought about her then. He loved her, he was sure of that. Not only was she beautiful and charming, but she'd become his source of stability and best friend as well. After a hard day at work, she was the first person he would call. She would listen to him, laugh at the right moments, and had a sixth sense about what he needed to hear. But more than that, he admired the way she'd always spoken her mind. He remembered that after they'd gone out a few times, he'd said to her what he said to all women he dated‐‐that he wasn't ready for a steady relationship. Unlike the others, though, Allie had simply nodded and said, "Fine." But on her way out the door, she'd turned and said: "But your problem isn't me, or your job, or your freedom, or whatever else you think it is. Your problem is that you're alone. Your father made the Hammond name famous, and you've probably been compared to him all your life. You've never been your own person.
A life like that makes you empty inside, and you're looking for someone who will magically fill that void. But no one can do that but you." The words had stayed with him that night and rung true the following morning. He'd called again, asked for a second chance, and after some persistence, she'd reluctantly agreed. In the four years they'd dated, she'd become everything he ever wanted, and he knew he should spend more time with her. But practicing law made limiting his hours impossible. She'd always understood, but still, he cursed himself for not making the time. Once he was married, he'd shorten his hours, he promised himself. He'd have his secretary check his schedule to make sure he wasn't overextending himself ....Check?... And his mind clicked another notch. Check... checking.., checking in? He looked to the ceiling. Checking in?
Yes, that was it. He closed his 'eyes and thought for a second. No. Nothing. What, then? C'mon, don't fail now. Think, damn it, think. New Bern. The thought popped into his head just then. Yes, New Bern. That was it. The little detail, or part of it. What else, though? New Bern, he thought again, and knew the name. Knew the town a little, mainly from a few trials he had been in. Stopped there a few times on the way to the coast. Nothing special. He and Allie had never been there together. But Allie had been there before .... And the rack tightened its grip, another part coming together. Another part.., but there was more .... Allie, New Bern... and.., and.., something at a party. A comment in passing. From Allie's mother. He'd hardly noticed it. But what had she said? And Lon paled then, remembering. Remembering what had been said so long ago. Remembering what Allie's mother had said. It was something about Allie being in love one time with a young man from New Bern. Called it puppy love. So what, he had thought when he'd heard it, and had turned to smile at Allie. But she hadn't smiled. She was angry. And then Lon guessed that she had loved that person far more deeply than her mother had suggested.
Maybe even more deeply than she loved him. And now she was there. Interesting. Lon brought his palms together, as though he were praying, resting them against his lips. Coincidence? Could be nothing. Could be exactly what she said. Could be stress and antique shopping. Possible. Even probable. Yet... yet.., what if? Lon considered the other possibility, and for the first time in a long time, he became frightened.
What if? What if she with him? He cursed the trial, wishing it were over. Wishing he had gone with her. Wondering if she'd told him the truth, hoping that she had. And he made up his mind then not to lose her. He would do anything it took to keep her. She was everything he'd always needed, and he'd never find another quite like her. So, with trembling hands, he dialed the phone for the fourth and last time that evening. And again there was no answer.