Safe haven, p.18
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       Safe Haven, p.18
 

           Nicholas Sparks
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  Katie took a deep breath, trying to make sense of Jo's rambling. "I don't know what you're trying to tell me."

  Jo swirled her wine, studying the little whirlpool in her glass. For the first time, her tone became utterly serious. "I'm talking about you and Alex."

  Katie couldn't hide her surprise. "Me and Alex?"

  "Yes." She nodded. "He's told you about losing his wife, right? About how hard it was for him--for the whole family--to get past it?"

  Katie stared across the table, suddenly uncomfortable. "Yes..." she began.

  "Then be careful with them," Jo said, her tone serious. "All of them. Don't break their hearts."

  In the awkward silence that followed, Katie found herself recalling their first conversation about Alex.

  Did you two ever see each other? she remembered asking Jo.

  Yes, but maybe not in the way you're thinking, Jo had answered. And just so we're clear: it was a long time ago and everyone has moved on.

  At the time, she'd assumed that it meant that Jo and Alex had dated in the past, but now...

  She was struck by the obviousness of the conclusion. The counselor Alex had mentioned, who had seen the kids and consulted with him in the aftermath of Carly's death--it must have been Jo. Katie sat up straight. "You worked with Alex and the kids, didn't you? After Carly died, I mean."

  "I'd rather not say," Jo answered. Her tone was measured and calm. Just like a counselor's. "I can say that all of them... mean a lot to me. And if you're not serious about a possible future with them, I think you should end it now. Before it's too late."

  Katie felt her cheeks flush; it seemed inappropriate--presumptuous, even--for Jo to be talking to her like this. "I'm not sure any of this is really your concern," she said, her voice tight.

  Jo acknowledged her point with a reluctant nod. "You're right. It's not my concern--and I'm crossing some important boundaries here. But I really do think they've been through enough. And the last thing I want for them is to become attached to someone who has no intention of staying in Southport. Maybe I'm worried that the past is never really in the past and that you might decide to leave, no matter how much sadness you leave in your wake."

  Katie was speechless. This conversation was so unexpected, so uncomfortable, and Jo's words had definitely thrown her emotions into turmoil.

  If Jo sensed Katie's discomfort, she pressed on anyway.

  "Love doesn't mean anything if you're not willing to make a commitment," she said, "and you have to think not only about what you want, but about what he wants. Not just now, but in the future." She continued to stare at Katie across the table, her brown eyes unwavering. "Are you ready to be a wife to Alex and a mother to his kids? Because that's what Alex wants. Maybe not right now, but he will in the future. And if you're not willing to make a commitment, if you're only going to toy with his feelings and those of his children, then you're not the person he needs in his life."

  Before Katie could say anything, Jo got up from the table as she went on. "It might have been wrong of me to say all this, and maybe we won't be friends any longer, but I wouldn't feel right about myself if I didn't speak plainly. As I've said from the very beginning, he's a good man--a rare man. He loves deeply and never stops loving." She let those words sink in before her expression suddenly softened. "I think you're the same way, but I wanted to remind you that if you care about him, then you have to be willing to commit to him. No matter what the future might bring. No matter how scared you might be."

  With that, she turned and left the bar, leaving Katie sitting at the table in stunned silence. It was only as she got up to leave that she noticed that Jo hadn't touched her wine.

  24

  Kevin Tierney didn't go to Provincetown on the weekend he'd told Coffey and Ramirez that he would. Instead, he stayed home with the curtains closed, brooding over how close he'd come to finding her in Philadelphia.

  He wouldn't have succeeded in tracking her that far, except that she'd made a mistake in going to the bus station. He knew it was the only transportation choice she could have made. Tickets were cheap and identification wasn't necessary, and though he wasn't sure how much she'd stolen from him, he knew it couldn't have been much. From the first day they were married, he'd controlled the money. He always made her keep receipts and give him any change, but after she'd run away the second time, he'd also started locking his wallet in the gun box with his guns when he went to sleep. Sometimes, though, he fell asleep on the couch and he imagined her slipping the wallet from his pocket and stealing his money. He imagined the way she silently laughed at him as she did it, and how, in the morning, she would make him breakfast and pretend that she'd done nothing wrong. She would smile and kiss him, but inside she was laughing. Laughing at him. She'd stolen from him and he knew that was wrong because the Bible says Thou shalt not steal.

  In the darkness, he chewed his lips, remembering his initial hope that she might come back. It was snowing and she couldn't get far; the first time she'd run away it had also been on a bitter cold night, and she'd called him within a few hours and asked him to pick her up because she had nowhere else to go. When she got home, she apologized for what she'd done and he made her a cup of hot cocoa as she sat shivering on the couch. He brought her a blanket and watched as she covered herself, trying to get warm. She smiled at him and he smiled at her, but once she stopped shivering, he crossed the room and slapped her until she cried. By the time he rose for work in the morning, she'd cleaned the spilled cocoa from the floor, though there was still a stain on the rug that she couldn't get out, and sometimes the sight of it made him angry.

  On the night he realized she was missing last January, he drank two glasses of vodka while he waited for her to come back, but the phone didn't ring and the front door stayed closed. He knew she hadn't been gone long. He'd spoken to her less than an hour before and she'd told him she was making dinner. But there was no dinner on the stove. No sign of her in the house or in the cellar or in the garage. He stood on the porch and looked for footprints in the snow, but it was obvious that she hadn't left through the front door. But the snow in the backyard was equally pristine, so she hadn't left that way, either. It was as if she'd floated away or vanished into thin air. Which meant she had to be here... except that she wasn't.

  Two more vodkas later and another half hour passed. By then, he was in a rage and he punched a hole in the bedroom door. He stormed from the house and banged on the neighbors' doors, asking if they'd noticed her leaving, but none of them could tell him anything. He hopped in his car and drove up and down the streets of the neighborhood, looking for traces of her, trying to figure out how she'd been able to leave the house without leaving any clues behind. By then, he figured she had a two-hour head start, but she was walking, and in this weather she couldn't have gotten far. Unless someone had come to pick her up. Someone she cared about. A man.

  He pounded the wheel, his face contorted in fury. Six blocks away was the commercial district. He went to the businesses there, flashing a wallet-size photograph and asking if anyone had seen her. No one had. He told them she might have been with a man and still they shook their heads. The men he asked were adamant about it: A pretty blond like that? they said. I would have noticed her, especially on a night like tonight.

  He drove each and every road within five miles of the house two or three times before finally going back home. It was three a.m. and the house was empty. After another vodka he cried himself to sleep.

  In the morning, when he woke, he was enraged again, and with a hammer he smashed the flowerpots she kept in the backyard. Breathing hard, he went to the phone and called in sick, then went to the couch and tried to figure out how she'd gotten away. Someone had to have picked her up; someone must have driven her someplace. Someone she knew. A friend from Atlantic City? Altoona? Possible, he supposed, except that he checked the phone bills every month. She never placed long-distance phone calls. Someone local, then. But who? She never went anywhere, never talked to anyo
ne. He made sure of that.

  He went to the kitchen and was pouring himself another drink when he heard the phone ring. He lunged for it, hoping it was Erin. Strangely, however, the phone rang only once, and when he picked up he heard a dial tone. He stared at the receiver, trying to figure it out before hanging up the phone.

  How had she gotten away? He was missing something. Even if someone local had picked her up, how had she gotten to the road without leaving footprints? He stared out the window, trying to piece together the sequence of events. Something seemed off, though he couldn't identify what it was. He turned away from the window and found himself focused on the telephone. It was then that the pieces suddenly came together and he pulled out his cell phone. He dialed his home number and listened as it rang once. The cell phone kept ringing. When he picked up the landline, he heard a dial tone and realized that she'd forwarded the calls to a cell phone. Which meant she hadn't been here when he'd called her last night. Which also explained the bad reception he'd noticed over the past two days. And, of course, the lack of footprints in the snow. She'd been gone, he now knew, since Tuesday morning.

  At the bus station, she made a mistake, even if she couldn't really help it. She should have purchased her tickets from a woman, since Erin was pretty and men always remembered pretty women. It didn't matter whether their hair was long and blond or short and dark. Nor did it matter if she'd pretended she was pregnant.

  He went to the bus station. He showed his badge and carried a larger photograph of her. The first two times he visited, none of the ticket sellers had recognized her. The third time, though, one of them hesitated and said that it might have been her, except that her hair was short and brown and that she was pregnant. He didn't, however, remember her destination. Back at home, Kevin found a photograph of her on the computer and used Photoshop to change her hair from blond to brown and then shortened it. He called in sick again on Friday. That's her, the ticket seller confirmed, and Kevin felt a surge of energy. She thought she was smarter than he was, but she was stupid and careless and she'd made a mistake. He took a couple of vacation days the following week and continued to hang around the bus station, showing the new photograph to drivers. He arrived in the morning and left late, since the drivers came and went all day long. There were two bottles in the car, and he poured the vodka into a Styrofoam cup and sipped it with a straw.

  On Saturday, eleven days after she'd left him, he found the driver. The driver had taken her to Philadelphia. He remembered her, he said, because she was pretty and pregnant and she didn't have any luggage.

  Philadelphia. She might have left again from there to parts unknown, but it was the only lead he had. Plus, he knew she didn't have much money.

  He'd packed a bag and hopped in his car and drove to Philadelphia. He parked at the bus station and tried to think like her. He was a good detective and he knew that if he could think like her, he'd be able to find her. People, he'd learned, were predictable.

  The bus had arrived a few minutes before four o'clock, and he stood in the bus station, looking from one direction to the next. She had stood here days earlier, he thought, and he wondered what she would do in a strange city with no money and no friends and no place to go. Quarters and dimes and dollar bills wouldn't go far, especially after purchasing a bus ticket.

  It was cold, he remembered, and it would have been getting dark soon. She wouldn't want to walk far and she would need a place to stay. A place that took cash. But where? Not here, in this area. Too expensive. Where would she go? She wouldn't want to get lost or head in the wrong direction, which meant that she probably looked in the phone book. He went back inside the terminal and looked under hotels. Pages and pages, he realized. She might have picked one, but then what? She'd have to walk there. Which meant she'd need a map.

  He went to the convenience store at the station and bought himself a map. He showed the clerk the photograph but he shook his head. He hadn't been working on Tuesday, he said. But it felt right to Kevin. This, he knew, was what she did. He unfolded the map and located the station. It bordered on Chinatown and he guessed she had headed in that direction.

  He got back in his car and drove the streets of Chinatown, and again it felt right. He drank his vodka and walked the streets. He started at those businesses closest to the bus station and showed her picture around. No one knew anything but he had the sense that some of them were lying. He found cheap rooms, places he never would have taken her, dirty places with dirty sheets, managed by men who spoke little English and took only cash. He implied that she was in danger if he couldn't find her. He found the first place she'd stayed, but the owner didn't know where she'd gone after that. Kevin put a gun to the man's head, but even though he cried, he couldn't tell Kevin anything more.

  Kevin had to go back to work on Monday, furious that she'd eluded him. But the following weekend, he was back in Philadelphia. And the weekend after that. He expanded his search, but the problem was that there were too many places and he was only one person and not everyone trusted an out-of-town cop.

  But he was patient and diligent and he kept coming back and took more vacation days. Another weekend passed. He widened his search, knowing she would need cash. He stopped in bars and restaurants and diners. He would check every one in the city if he had to. Finally, a week after Valentine's Day, he met a waitress named Tracy who told him that Erin was working at a diner, except she was calling herself Erica. She was scheduled to work the following day. The waitress trusted him because he was a detective, and she'd even flirted with him, handing him her phone number before he left.

  He rented a car and waited up the block from the diner the following morning, before the sun was up. Employees entered through a door in the alley. He sipped from his Styrofoam cup in the front seat, watching for her. Eventually, he saw the owner and Tracy and another woman head down the alley. But Erin never showed, and she didn't show up the following day, either, and no one knew where she lived. She never came back to pick up her paycheck.

  He found where she lived a few hours later. It was walking distance from the diner, a piece-of-crap hotel. The man, who accepted only cash, knew nothing except that Erin had left the day before and come back and left again in a hurry. Kevin searched her room but there was nothing inside, and when he finally raced to the bus station there were only women in the ticket booths and none of them remembered her. Buses in the last two hours were traveling north, south, east, and west, going everywhere.

  She'd disappeared again, and in the car Kevin screamed and beat his fists against the wheel until they were bruised and swollen.

  In the months that Erin had been gone, he felt the ache inside grow more poisonous and all-consuming, spreading like a cancer every day. He had returned to Philadelphia and questioned the drivers over the next few weeks, but it hadn't amounted to much. He eventually learned that she'd gone on to New York, but from there, the trail went cold. Too many buses, too many drivers, too many passengers; too many days had passed since then. Too many options. She could be anywhere, and the thought that she was gone tormented him. He flew into rages and broke things; he cried himself to sleep. He was filled with despair and sometimes felt like he was losing his mind.

  It wasn't fair. He'd loved her since the first time they met in Atlantic City. And they'd been happy, hadn't they? Early on in the marriage, she used to sing to herself as she put on her makeup. He used to bring her to the library and she would check out eight or ten books. Sometimes she would read him passages and he would hear her voice and watch the way she leaned against the counter and think to himself that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

  He'd been a good husband. He bought her the house she wanted and the curtains she wanted and the furniture she wanted, even though he could barely afford it. After they were married, he often bought flowers from street vendors on the way home, and Erin would put them in a vase on the table along with candles, and the two of them would have romantic dinners. Sometimes, they ended up makin
g love in the kitchen, her back pressed against the counter.

  He never made her work, either, and she didn't know how good she had it. She didn't understand the sacrifices he made for her. She was spoiled and selfish and it used to make him so angry because she didn't understand how easy her life was. Clean the house and make a meal and she could spend the rest of her days reading stupid books she checked out from the library and watching television and taking naps and never having to worry about a utility bill or mortgage payment or people who talked about him behind his back. She never had to see the faces of people who had been murdered. He kept that from her because he loved her, but it had made no difference. He never told her about the children who'd been burned with irons or tossed from the roofs of buildings or women stabbed in the alley and thrown in Dumpsters. He never told her that sometimes he had to scrape the blood from his shoes before he got in the car, and when he looked into the eyes of murderers he knew he was coming face-to-face with evil because the Bible says To kill a person is to kill a living being made in God's image.

  He loved her and she loved him and she had to come home because he couldn't find her. She could have her happy life again and he wouldn't hit or punch or slap or kick her if she walked in the door because he'd always been a good husband. He loved her and she loved him and he remembered that on the day he asked her to marry him, she reminded him of the night they'd met outside the casino when the men were following her. Dangerous men. He'd stopped them from hurting her that night, and in the morning they'd walked along the boardwalk and he took her for coffee. She told him that of course she would marry him. She loved him, she'd said. He made her feel safe.

  Safe. That was the word she used. Safe.

 
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