Dear john, p.24
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       Dear John, p.24

           Nicholas Sparks
 
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  I finished eating and brought both plates to the sink and rinsed them. Through the rain-splattered window, I saw my car and knew I should simply leave without looking back. It would be easier that way for both of us. But when I reached into my pockets for the keys, I froze. Over the patter of the rain on the roof, I heard a sound from the living room, a sound that defused my anger and confusion. Savannah, I realized, was crying.

  I tried to ignore the sound, but I couldn't. Taking my wine, I crossed into the living room.

  Savannah sat on the couch, cupping the glass of wine in her hands. She looked up as I entered.

  Outside, the wind had begun to pick up, and the rain started coming down even harder. Beyond the living room glass, lightning flashed, followed by the steady rumble of thunder, long and low.

  Taking a seat beside her, I put my glass on the end table and looked around the room. Atop the fireplace mantel stood photographs of Savannah and Tim on their wedding day: one where they were cutting the cake and another taken in the church. She was beaming, and I found myself wishing that I were the one beside her in the picture.

  "Sorry," she said. "I know I shouldn't be crying, but I can't help it."

  "It's understandable," I murmured. "You've got a lot going on."

  In the silence, I listened to the sheets of rain batter the windowpanes.

  "It's quite a storm," I observed, grasping for words that would fill the taut silence.

  "Yeah," she said, barely listening.

  "Do you think Alan's going to be okay?"

  She tapped her fingers against the glass. "He won't leave until it stops raining. He doesn't like lightning. But it shouldn't last long. The wind will push the storm toward the coast. At least, that's the way it's been lately." She hesitated. "Do you remember that storm we sat out? When I took you to the house we were building?"

  "Of course."

  "I still think about that night. That was the first time I told you that I loved you. I was remembering that night just the other day. I was sitting here just like I am now. Tim was in the hospital, Alan was with him, and while I watched the rain, it all came back. The memory was so vivid, it felt like it had just happened. And then the rain stopped and I knew it was time to feed the horses. I was back in my regular life again, and all at once, it felt like I had just imagined the whole thing. Like it happened to someone else, someone I don't even know anymore."

  She leaned toward me. "What do you remember the most?" she asked.

  "All of it," I said.

  She looked at me beneath her lashes. "Nothing stands out?"

  The storm outside made the room feel dark and intimate, and I felt a shiver of guilty anticipation about where all this might be leading. I wanted her as much as I'd ever wanted anyone, but in the back of my mind, I knew Savannah wasn't mine anymore. I could feel Tim's presence all around me, and I knew she wasn't really herself.

  I took a sip of wine, then set the glass back on the table.

  "No." I kept my voice steady. "Nothing stands out. But that's why you always wanted me to look at the moon, right? So that I could remember all of it?"

  What I didn't say was that I still went out to stare at the moon, and despite the guilt I was feeling about being here, I wondered whether she did, too.

  "You want to know what I remember most?" she asked.

  "When I broke Tim's nose?"

  "No." She laughed, then turned serious. "I remember the times we went to church. Do you realize that they're still the only times I ever saw you in a tie? You should get dressed up more often. You looked good." She seemed to reflect on that before turning her eyes to me again.

  "Are you seeing anyone?" she asked.

  "No."

  She nodded. "I didn't think so. I figured you would have mentioned it."

  She turned toward the window. In the distance, I could see one of the horses galloping in the rain.

  "I'm going to have to feed them in a little while. I'm sure they're wondering where I am already."

  "They'll be okay," I assured her.

  "Easy for you to say. Trust me--they can get as cranky as people when they're hungry."

  "It must be hard handling all this on your own."

  "It is. But what choice do I have? At least our employer's been understanding. Tim's on a leave of absence, and whenever he's in the hospital, they let me take however much time I need." Then, in a teasing tone, she added, "Just like the army, right?"

  "Oh yeah. It's exactly the same."

  She giggled, then became sober again. "How was it in Iraq?"

  I was about to make my usual crack about the sand, but instead I said, "It's hard to describe."

  Savannah waited, and I reached for my glass of wine, stalling. Even with her, I wasn't sure I wanted to go into it. But something was happening between us, something I wanted and yet didn't want. I forced myself to look at Savannah's ring and imagine the betrayal she would no doubt feel later. I closed my eyes and started with the night of the invasion.

  I don't know how long I talked, but it was long enough for the rain to have ended. With the sun still drifting in its slow descent, the horizon glowed the colors of a rainbow. Savannah refilled her glass. By the time I finished, I was entirely spent and knew I'd never speak of it again.

  Savannah had remained quiet as I spoke, asking only the occasional question to let me know she was listening to everything I said.

  "It's different from what I imagined," she remarked.

  "Yeah?" I asked.

  "When you scan the headlines or read the stories, most of the time, names of soldiers and cities in Iraq are just words. But to you, it's personal . . . it's real. Maybe too real."

  I had nothing left to add, and I felt her hand reach for mine. Her touch made something leap inside me. "I wish you'd never had to go through all that."

  I squeezed her hand and felt her respond in kind. When she finally let go, the sensation of her touch lingered, and like an old habit rediscovered, I watched her tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. The sight made me ache.

  "It's strange how fate works," she said, her voice almost a whisper. "Did you ever imagine that your life would turn out like it did?"

  "No," I said.

  "I didn't either," she said. "When you first went back to Germany, I just knew that you and I would be married one day. I was more sure of that than anything in my life."

  I stared into my glass as she went on.

  "And then, on your second leave, I was even more sure. Especially after we made love."

  "Don't . . ." I shook my head. "Let's not go there."

  "Why?" she asked. "Do you regret it?"

  "No." I couldn't bear to look at her. "Of course not. But you're married now."

  "But it happened," she said. "Do you want me to just forget it?"

  "I don't know," I said. "Maybe."

  "I can't," she said, sounding surprised and hurt. "That was my first time. I'll never forget it, and in its own way, it will always be special to me. What happened between us was beautiful."

  I didn't trust myself to respond, and after a moment, she seemed to collect herself. Leaning forward, she asked, "When you found out that I had married Tim, what did you think?"

  I waited to answer, wanting to choose my words with care. "My first thought was that in a way, it made sense. He's been in love with you for years. I knew that from the moment I met him." I ran a hand over my face. "After that, I felt . . . conflicted. I was glad that you picked someone like him, because he's a nice guy and you two have a lot in common, but then I was just . . . sad. We didn't have that long to go. I would have been out of the army for almost two years now."

  She pressed her lips together. "I'm sorry," she murmured.

  "I am, too." I tried to smile. "If you want my honest opinion, I think you should have waited for me."

  She laughed uncertainly, and I was surprised by the look of longing on her face. She reached for her glass of wine.

  "I've been thinking about that, too. Where
we would have been, where we'd be living, what we'd be doing in our lives. Especially lately. Last night after you left, that's all I could think about. I know how terrible that makes me sound, but these past couple of years, I've been trying to convince myself that even if our love was real, it never would have lasted." Her expression was forlorn. "You really would have married me, wouldn't you?"

  "In a heartbeat. And I still would if I could."

  The past suddenly seemed to loom over us, overwhelming in its intensity.

  "It was real, wasn't it?" Her voice had a tremor. "You and me?"

  The gray light of dusk was reflected in her eyes as she waited for my answer. In the moments that elapsed, I felt the weight of Tim's prognosis hanging over both of us. My racing thoughts were morbid and wrong, but they were there nonetheless. I hated myself for even thinking about life after Tim, willing the thought away.

  Yet I couldn't. I wanted to take Savannah in my arms, to hold her, to recapture everything we had lost in our years apart. Instinctively, I began to lean toward her.

  Savannah knew what was coming but didn't pull away. Not at first. As my lips neared hers, however, she turned quickly and the wine she was holding splashed onto both of us.

  She jumped to her feet, setting her glass on the table and pulling her blouse away from her skin.

  "I'm sorry," I said.

  "It's okay," she said. "I'm going to change, though. I've got to get this soaking. It's one of my favorites."

  "Okay," I said.

  I watched as she left the living room and went down the hall. She turned into the bedroom on the right, and when she was gone, I cursed. I shook my head at my own stupidity, then noticed the wine on my shirt. I stood and started down the hall, looking for the bathroom.

  Turning a random doorknob, I came face-to-face with myself in the bathroom mirror. In the reflected background, I could see Savannah through the cracked door of the bedroom across the hall. She was topless with her back to me, and though I tried, I couldn't turn away.

  She must have sensed me staring at her, for she looked over her shoulder toward me. I thought she would suddenly close the door or cover herself, but she didn't. Instead, she caught my eyes and held them, willing me to continue watching her. And then, slowly, she turned around.

  We stood there facing each other through the reflection in the mirror, with only the narrow hallway separating us. Her lips were parted slightly, and she lifted her chin a bit; I knew that if I lived to be a thousand, I would never forget how exquisite she looked at that moment. I wanted to cross the hallway and go to her, knowing that she wanted me as much as I wanted her. But I stayed where I was, frozen by the thought that she would one day hate me for what we both so obviously wanted.

  And Savannah, who knew me better than anyone else, dropped her eyes as if suddenly coming to the same understanding. She turned back around just as the front door crashed open and I heard a loud wail pierce the darkness.

  Alan . . .

  I turned and rushed to the living room; Alan had already vanished into the kitchen, and I could hear the cupboard doors being opened and slammed while he continued to wail, almost as if he were dying. I stopped, not knowing what to do. A moment later, Savannah rushed past me, tugging her shirt back into place.

  "Alan! I'm coming!" she shouted, her voice frantic. "It's going to be okay!"

  Alan continued to wail, and the cupboards continued to slam shut.

  "Do you need help?" I called to her.

  "No." She gave a hard shake of her head. "Let me handle this. It happens sometimes when he gets home from the hospital."

  As she rushed into the kitchen, I could barely hear her beginning to talk to him. Her voice was almost lost in the clamor, but I heard the steadiness in it, and moving off to the side, I could see her standing next to him, trying to calm him. It didn't seem to have any effect, and I felt the urge to help, but Savannah remained calm. She continued to talk steadily to him, then placed a hand on top of his, following along with the slamming.

  Finally, after what seemed like forever, the slamming began to slow and become more rhythmic; from there it slowly faded away. Alan's cries followed the same pattern. Savannah's voice was softer now, and I could no longer hear distinct words.

  I sat on the couch. A few minutes later, I rose and went to the window. It was dark; the clouds had passed, and above the mountains was a swirl of stars. Wondering what was going on, I moved to a spot in the living room that afforded a glimpse into the kitchen.

  Savannah and Alan were sitting on the kitchen floor. Her back was leaning against the cupboards, and Alan rested his head on her chest as she ran a tender hand through his hair. He was blinking rapidly, as if wired to always be in motion. Savannah's eyes gleamed with tears, but I could see her look of concentration, and I knew she was determined not to let him know how much she was hurting.

  "I love him," I heard Alan say. Gone was the deep voice from the hospital; this was the aching plea of a frightened little boy.

  "I know, sweetie. I love him, too. I love him so much. I know you're scared, and I'm scared, too."

  I could hear from her tone how much she meant it.

  "I love him," Alan repeated.

  "He'll be out of the hospital in a couple of days. The doctors are doing everything they can."

  "I love him."

  She kissed the top of his head. "He loves you, too, Alan. And so do I. And I know he's looking forward to riding the horses with you again. He told me that. And he's so proud of you. He tells me all the time what a good job you do around here."

  "I'm scared."

  "I am, too, sweetie. But the doctors are doing everything they can."

  "I love him."

  "I know. I love him, too. More than you can ever imagine."

  I continued to watch them, knowing suddenly that I didn't belong here. In all the time I stood there, Savannah never looked up, and I felt haunted by all that we had lost.

  I patted my pocket, pulled out my keys, and turned to leave, feeling tears burning at the back of my eyes. I opened the door, and despite the loud squeak, I knew that Savannah wouldn't hear anything.

  I stumbled down the steps, wondering if I'd ever been so tired in my life. And later, as I drove to my motel and listened to the car idle as I waited for the stoplights to change, I knew that passersby would see a man crying, a man whose tears felt as if they would never stop.

  I spent the rest of the evening alone in my motel room. Outside, I could hear strangers passing by my door, wheeled luggage rolling behind them. When cars pulled into the lot, my room would be illuminated momentarily by headlights casting ghostly images against the walls. People on the go, people moving forward in life. As I lay on the bed, I was filled with envy and wondered whether I would ever be able to say the same.

  I didn't bother trying to sleep. I thought about Tim, but oddly, instead of the emaciated figure I'd seen in the hospital room, I saw only the young man I'd met at the beach, the clean-cut student with an easy smile for everyone. I thought about my dad and wondered what his final weeks were like. I tried to imagine the staff listening to him as he talked about coins and prayed that the director had been right when he told me that my dad had passed away peacefully in his sleep. I thought about Alan and the foreign world his mind inhabited. But mostly I thought about Savannah. I replayed the day we'd spent, and I dwelled endlessly on the past, trying to escape an emptiness that wouldn't go away.

  In the morning, I watched the sun come up, a golden marble emerging from the earth. I showered and loaded the few belongings I'd brought into the room back in the car. At the diner across the street, I ordered breakfast, but when the plate arrived steaming before me, I pushed it aside and nursed a cup of coffee, wondering if Savannah was already up, feeding the horses.

  It was nine in the morning when I showed up at the hospital. I signed in and rode the elevator to the third floor; I walked the same corridor I'd walked the day before. Tim's door was halfway open, and I could hear the tel
evision.

  He saw me and smiled in surprise. "Hey, John," he said, turning off the television. "Come in. I was just killing time."

  As I took a seat in the same chair I'd sat in the day before, I noticed that his color was better. He struggled to sit up higher in the bed before focusing on me again.

  "What brings you here so early?"

  "I'm getting ready to head out," I said. "I've got to catch a flight tomorrow back to Germany. You know how it is."

  "Yeah, I know." He nodded. "Hopefully I'll be getting out later today. I had a pretty good night last night."

  "Good," I said. "I'm glad to hear it."

  I studied him, looking for any sign of suspicion in his gaze, any inkling of what had nearly happened the night before, but I saw nothing.

  "Why are you really here, John?" he asked.

  "I'm not sure," I confessed. "I just felt like I needed to see you. And that maybe you wanted to see me, too."

  He nodded and turned toward the window; from his room, there was nothing to see except a large air-conditioning unit. "You want to know what the worst thing about all this is?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I worry about Alan," he said. "I know what's happening to me. I know the odds aren't good and that there's a good chance I won't make it. I can accept that. Like I told you yesterday, I've still got my faith, and I know--or at least I hope--there's something better waiting for me. And Savannah . . . I know that if something does happen to me, she'll be crushed. But you know what I learned when I lost my parents?"

  "That life isn't fair?"

  "Yeah, that, of course. But I also learned that it's possible to go on, no matter how impossible it seems, and that in time, the grief . . . lessens. It may not ever go away completely, but after a while it's not overwhelming. That's what's going to happen to Savannah. She's young and she's strong, and she'll be able to move on. But Alan . . . I don't know what's going to happen to him. Who's going to take care of him? Where's he going to live?"

  "Savannah will take care of him."

  "I know she would. But is that fair to her? To expect her to shoulder that responsibility?"

  "It won't matter whether it's fair. She won't let anything happen to him."

  "How? She's going to have to work--who watches Alan then? Remember, he's still young. He's only nineteen. Do I expect her to take care of him for the next fifty years? For me, it was simple. He's my brother. But Savannah . . ." He shook his head. "She's young and beautiful. Is it fair to expect that she'll never get married again?"

 
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NICHOLAS SPARKS SERIES:

Jeremy Marsh
The Notebook