Dear john, p.10
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       Dear John, p.10

           Nicholas Sparks
 
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  She led me back to the front door. In the distance, the first rumblings of thunder could be heard. As we stood in the doorway, I drew her near.

  "There's going to be a porch, too," she said, "with enough room for a couple of rocking chairs, or even a swing. They'll be able to sit out here on summer nights, and congregate here after church." She pointed. "That's their church right over there. That's why this location is so perfect for them."

  "You sound like you really got to know them."

  "No, not really," she said. "I talked to them a little bit, but I'm just guessing about all this. I've done that with every house I've helped to build--I walk through and try to imagine what the owners' lives will be like. It makes working on the house a lot more fun."

  The moon was now hidden by clouds, darkening the sky. On the horizon, lightning flashed, and a moment later a soft rain began to fall, pattering against the roof. The oak trees lining the street, heavy with leaves, rustled in the breeze as thunder echoed through the house.

  "If you want to go, we should probably leave before the storm hits."

  "We don't have anywhere to go, remember? Besides, I've always loved thunderstorms."

  I pulled her closer, breathing in her scent. Her hair smelled sweet, like ripe strawberries.

  As we watched, the rain intensified into a steady downpour, falling diagonally from the sky. Streetlamps provided the only light, casting half of Savannah's face in shadow.

  Thunder exploded overhead, and the rain began coming down in sheets. I could see the rain blowing onto the sawdust-covered floor, forming wide puddles in the dirt, and I was thankful that despite the rain, the temperature was warm. Off to the side, I spotted some empty crates. I left her side to collect them, then began to stack them into a makeshift seat. It wouldn't be all that comfortable, but it would be better than standing.

  As Savannah took a seat next to me, I suddenly knew that coming here had been the right thing to do. It was the first time we'd really been alone, but as we sat side by side, it felt as though we'd been together forever.

  Eight

  The crates, hard and unforgiving, made me question my wisdom, but Savannah didn't seem to mind. Or pretended not to. She leaned back, felt the edge of the rear crate press into her skin, then sat up again.

  "Sorry," I said, "I thought it would be more comfortable."

  "It's okay. My legs are exhausted and my feet hurt. This is perfect."

  Yes, I thought, it was. I thought back to nights on guard duty, when I'd imagine sitting beside the girl of my dreams and feeling all was right with the world. I knew now what I'd been missing all these years. When I felt Savannah rest her head on my shoulder, I found myself wishing I hadn't joined the army. I wished I weren't stationed overseas, and I wished I'd chosen a different path in life, one that would have let me remain a part of her world. To be a student at Chapel Hill, to spend part of my summer building houses, to ride horses with her.

  "You're awful quiet," I heard her say.

  "Sorry," I said. "I was just thinking about tonight."

  "Good things, I hope."

  "Yeah, good things," I said.

  She shifted in her seat, and I felt her leg brush against mine. "Me too. But I was thinking about your dad," she said. "Has he always been like he was tonight? Kind of shy and glancing away when he talks to people?"

  "Yeah," I said. "Why?"

  "Just curious," she said.

  A few feet away, the storm seemed to be reaching its climax as another sheet of rain broke from the clouds. Water poured off all sides of the house like waterfalls. Lightning flashed again, closer this time, and thunder crashed like a cannon. Had there been windows, I imagined they would have rattled in their casings.

  Savannah scooted closer, and I put my arm around her. She crossed her legs at the ankles and leaned against me, and I felt as if I could hold her this way forever.

  "You're different from most of the guys I know," she observed, her voice low and intimate in my ear. "More mature, less . . . flighty, I guess."

  I smiled, liking what she said. "And don't forget my crew cut and tattoos."

  "Crew cut, yes. Tattoos . . . well, they sort of come with the package, but no one's perfect."

  I nudged her and pretended to be wounded. "Well, had I known how you feel, I wouldn't have got them."

  "I don't believe you," she said, pulling back. "But I'm sorry--I shouldn't have said that. I was speaking more about how I'd feel about getting one. On you, they do tend to project a certain . . . image, and I suppose it fits."

  "What image is that?"

  She pointed to the tattoos, one by one, starting with the Chinese character. "This one tells me that you live life by your own rules and don't always care what people think. The infantry one shows that you're proud of what you do. And the barbed wire . . . well, that goes with who you were when you were younger."

  "That's quite the psychological profile. Here I thought it was just that I liked the designs."

  "I'm thinking about getting a minor in psychology."

  "I think you already have one."

  Though the wind had picked up, the rain finally began to slow.

  "Have you ever been in love?" she asked, switching gears suddenly.

  Her question surprised me. "That came out of the blue."

  "I've been told that being unpredictable adds to the mysteriousness of women."

  "Oh, it does. But to answer your question, I don't know."

  "How can you not know?"

  I hesitated, trying to think of what to say. "I dated a girl a few years back, and at the time, I knew I was in love. At least, that's what I'd told myself. But now, when I think back, I'm just . . . not sure anymore. I cared about her and I enjoyed spending time with her, but when we weren't together, I barely thought about her. We were together, but we weren't a couple, if that makes any sense."

  She considered my answer but said nothing. In time, I turned toward her. "How about you? Have you ever been in love?"

  Her face clouded. "No," she said.

  "But you thought you were. Like me, right?" When she inhaled sharply, I went on. "In my squad, I have to use a bit of psychology, too. And my instincts tell me there was a serious boyfriend in your past."

  She smiled, but there was something sad in it. "I knew you'd figure it out," she said in a subdued voice. "But to answer your question, yes, there was. During my freshman year in college. And yes, I did think I loved him."

  "Are you sure you didn't love him?"

  It took her a long time to answer. "No," she murmured. "I'm not."

  I stared at her. "You don't have to tell me--"

  "It's okay," she said, raising her hand to cut me off. "But it's hard. I've tried to forget about it, and it's something that I've never even told my parents. Or anyone, for that matter. It's such a cliche, you know? Small-town girl goes off to college and meets a handsome senior, who's also president of his fraternity. He's popular and rich and charming, and the little freshman is awed that he could be interested in someone like her. He treats her like she's special, and she knows that other freshman girls are jealous, so she begins to feel special, too. She agrees to go to the winter formal at one of these fancy out-of-town hotels with him and some other couples, even though she's been warned that the guy isn't as kind or sensitive as he appears to be, and that in reality, he's the kind of boy who carves notches in his bed frame for every girl he's had."

  She closed her eyes, as if summoning the energy to continue. "She goes against the better judgment of her friends, and even though she doesn't drink and he happily brings her a soda, she starts getting woozy anyway, and he offers to take her back to the hotel room so she can lie down. And the next thing she knows, they're on the bed kissing, and she likes it at first, but the room is really spinning, and it doesn't occur to her until later that maybe someone--maybe him--put something in her drink and that carving another notch with her name on it had been his goal all along."

  Her words began to com
e faster, tumbling over one another. "And then he starts groping at her breasts and her dress gets torn and then her panties get torn, too, but he's on top of her and he's so heavy and she can't get him off, and she feels really helpless and wants him to stop since she's never done this before, but by then she's so dizzy she can barely talk and can't call for help, and he probably would have had his way with her except that another couple who was staying in the room happened to show up, and she staggers out of the room crying and holding her dress. Somehow she finds her way to the lobby bathroom and keeps crying there, and other girls she'd traveled to the formal with come in and see the smeared mascara and torn dress and instead of being supportive, they laugh at her, acting like she should have known what was coming and got what she deserved. Finally she ends up calling a friend who hopped in his car and drove out there to pick her up, and he was smart enough not to ask any questions the whole way back."

  By the time she finished, I was rigid with anger. I'm no saint with women, but I've never once in my life considered forcing a woman to do something she rather wouldn't.

  "I'm sorry," was all I could muster.

  "You don't have to be sorry. You didn't do it."

  "I know. But I don't know what else to say. Unless . . ." I trailed off, and after a moment she turned to me. I could see the tears running down her cheeks, and the fact that she'd been crying so silently made me ache.

  "Unless what?"

  "Unless you want me to . . . I don't know. Beat the crap out of him?"

  She gave me a sad little laugh. "You have no idea how many times I've wanted to do just that."

  "I will," I said. "Just give me a name, but I promise to leave you out of it. I'll do the rest."

  She squeezed my hand. "I know you would."

  "I'm serious," I said.

  She gave a wan smile, looking simultaneously world-weary and painfully young. "That's why I won't tell you. But believe me, I'm touched. That's sweet of you."

  I liked the way she said it, and we sat together, hands clasped tightly. The rain had finally stopped, and in its place I could hear the sounds of the radio next door again. I didn't know the song, but I recognized it as something from the early jazz era. One of the guys in my unit was a fanatic about jazz.

  "But anyway," she went on, "that's what I meant when I said it wasn't always easy my freshman year. And it was the reason I wanted to quit school. My parents, bless their hearts, thought that I was homesick, so they made me stay. But . . . as bad as it was, I learned something about myself. That I could go through something like that and survive. I mean, I know it could have been worse--a lot worse--but for me, it was all I could have handled at the time. And I learned from it."

  When she finished, I found myself remembering something she'd said. "Was Tim the one who brought you back from the hotel that night?"

  She looked up, startled.

  "Who else would you call?" I said by way of explanation.

  She nodded. "Yeah, I guess you're right. And he was great. To this day, he hasn't asked about the specifics, and I haven't told him. But since then he's been a little protective, and I can't say that I mind."

  In the silence, I thought about the courage she had shown, not only that night, but afterward. Had she not told me, I would never have suspected anything bad had ever happened to her. I marveled that despite what happened, she had managed to hold on to her optimistic view of the world.

  "I promise to be a perfect gentleman," I said.

  She turned to me. "What are you talking about?"

  "Tonight. Tomorrow night. Whenever. I'm not like that guy."

  She traced a finger along my jaw, and I felt my skin tingle beneath her touch. "I know," she said, sounding amused. "Why do you think I'm here with you now?"

  Her voice was so tender, and again, I suppressed the urge to kiss her. It wasn't what she needed, not now, even though it was difficult to think of anything else.

  "Do you know what Susan said after that first night? Once you left and I went back to the group?"

  I waited.

  "She said you looked scary. Like you were the last person on earth she would have ever wanted to be alone with."

  I grinned. "I've been told worse," I assured her.

  "No, you're missing my point. My point is that I remember thinking that she didn't know what she was talking about, because when you first handed me my bag on the beach, I saw honesty and confidence and even something tender, but nothing frightening at all. I know it sounds crazy, but it felt like I already knew you."

  I turned away without responding. Below the streetlamp, mist was rising from the ground, a remnant of the heat of the day. Crickets had begun to sound, singing to one another. I swallowed, trying to soothe the sudden dryness in my throat. I looked at Savannah, then up to the ceiling, then to my feet, and finally back to Savannah again. She squeezed my hand, and I drew a shaky breath, marveling at the fact that while on an ordinary leave in an ordinary place, I'd somehow fallen in love with an extraordinary girl named Savannah Lynn Curtis.

  She saw my expression but misinterpreted it. "I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable," she whispered. "I do that sometimes. Act too forward, I mean. I just blurt out what I'm thinking without taking into account how it might come across to others."

  "You didn't make me uncomfortable," I said, turning her face to me. "I've just never had anyone say anything like that to me before."

  I almost stopped there, aware that if I kept the words inside, the moment would pass and I would escape without putting my feelings on the line.

  "You have no idea how much the last few days have meant to me," I began. "Meeting you has been the best thing that's ever happened to me." I hesitated, knowing that if I stopped now, I'd never be able to say it to anyone. "I love you," I whispered.

  I had always imagined the words would be hard to say, but they weren't. In all my life, I'd never been as sure of anything, and as much as I hoped to one day hear Savannah say these words to me, what mattered most was knowing that love was mine to give, without strings or expectations.

  Outside, the air was beginning to cool, and I could see pools of water shimmering in the moonlight. The clouds had begun to break up, and between them, an occasional star blinked, as if to remind me of what I'd just admitted.

  "Did you ever imagine something like this?" she wondered aloud. "You and me, I mean?"

  "No," I said.

  "It scares me a little."

  My stomach flipped, and all at once, I was sure she didn't feel the same way.

  "You don't have to say it back to me," I began. "That's not why I said it--"

  "I know," she interrupted. "You don't understand. I wasn't scared because you told me. I got scared because I wanted to say it, too: I love you, John."

  Even now, I'm still not sure how it happened. One instant we were talking, and in the next she leaned toward me. For a second, I wondered whether kissing her would break the spell we both were under, but it was too late to stop. And when her lips met mine, I knew that I could live to be a hundred and visit every country in the world, but nothing would ever compare to that single moment when I first kissed the girl of my dreams and knew that my love would last forever.

  Nine

  We ended up staying out late. After we left the house, I took Savannah back to the beach, and we walked the long stretch of sand until she began to yawn. I walked her to the door, and we kissed again as moths darted in the porch light.

  Although it seemed I'd been thinking about Savannah a lot the day before, it didn't compare with how obsessed I was the following day, though the feeling was different. I found myself smiling for no good reason, something even my father noticed when he got home from work. He didn't comment on it--I hadn't expected him to, of course--but he didn't seem surprised when I patted his back upon learning that he planned on making lasagna. I talked endlessly about Savannah, and after a couple of hours, he wandered back to his den. Even though he'd said little, I think he was happy for me and even
more pleased that I'd been willing to share. I was sure of it when I got home later that night and found a platter of fresh-baked peanut-butter cookies on the counter, along with a note that informed me that plenty of milk could be found in the refrigerator.

  I took Savannah out for ice cream, then drove her to the touristy part of downtown Wilmington. We strolled through the shops, where I discovered she had an interest in antiques. Later I took her to see the battleship, but we didn't stay long. She'd been right; it was boring. Afterward, I took her home, where we sat around the bonfire with her housemates.

  The next two nights, Savannah came over to my house. My dad cooked both evenings. On the first evening, Savannah asked my dad nothing about coins, and conversation was a struggle. My dad mainly listened, and though Savannah kept up a pleasant front and tried to include him, force of habit led the two of us to talk to each other while my dad focused on his plate. When she left, Savannah's brow was creased, and though I didn't want to believe that her initial impression of him had changed, I knew that it had.

  Surprisingly, she asked to return the following evening, where once again she and my father found themselves in the den, discussing coins. As I watched them, I wondered what Savannah was making of a situation that I'd long since grown used to. At the same time, I prayed that she would be more understanding than I had once been. By the time we left, I realized that I'd had nothing to worry about. Instead, as we drove back to the beach, she spoke about my dad in glowing terms, particularly praising the job he'd done raising me. While I wasn't sure what to make of it, I breathed a sigh of relief that she seemed to have accepted my dad for who he was.

  By the weekend, my appearance at the beach house was becoming a regular occurrence. Most of the people in the house had learned my name, though they still showed little interest in me, exhausted as they were by the day's hard work. Most of them were clustered around the television by seven or eight, instead of drinking and flirting on the beach. Everyone looked sunburned, and all wore Band-Aids on their fingers to cover their blisters.

 
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NICHOLAS SPARKS SERIES:

Jeremy Marsh
The Notebook