Dear john, p.5
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       Dear John, p.5

           Nicholas Sparks
 
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  She held my gaze. "You too. I've never hung out with a soldier before. I felt sort of . . . protected. I don't think Randy'll give me any trouble tonight. Your tattoos probably scared him away."

  I guess she had noticed them. "Maybe I'll see you around."

  "You know where I'll be."

  I wasn't sure whether that meant she wanted me to come visit again or didn't. In many ways, she remained a complete mystery to me. Then again, I barely knew her at all.

  "But I am a little disappointed that you forgot," she added, almost as an afterthought.

  "Forgot what?"

  "Didn't you say that you'd teach me how to surf?"

  If Tim had any inkling of the effect Savannah had on me or that I'd be visiting again the next day, he gave no indication. Instead he focused mainly on the drive, making sure he was heading in the right direction. He was the kind of driver who stopped the car even when the light was yellow and he could have sailed through.

  "I hope you had a good time," he said. "I know it's always strange when you don't know anyone."

  "I did."

  "You and Savannah really hit it off. She's something, isn't she? I think she liked you."

  "We had a nice conversation," I said.

  "I'm glad. I was a little worried about her coming down here. Last year her parents were with us, so this is the first time she's been on her own like this. I know she's a big girl, but these aren't the kind of people she usually hangs out with, and the last thing I wanted was for her to be fending off guys all night."

  "I'm sure she could have handled it."

  "You're probably right. But I get the feeling that some of these guys are pretty persistent."

  "Of course they are. They're guys."

  He laughed. "I guess you're right." He motioned toward the window. "Which way now?"

  I directed him through a series of turns, then finally I told him to slow the car. He stopped in front of the house, where I could see the light from my dad's den, glowing yellow.

  "Thanks for the ride," I said, opening my door.

  "No problem." He leaned over the seat. "And listen, like I said, feel free to stop by the house anytime. We work during the week, but weekends and evenings are usually clear."

  "I'll keep that in mind," I promised.

  Once inside, I went to my dad's den and opened the door. He was peering at the Greysheet and jumped. I realized he hadn't heard me come in.

  "Sorry," I said, taking a seat on the single step that separated the den from the rest of the house. "Didn't mean to scare you."

  "It's okay," was all he said. He debated whether to set aside the Greysheet, then did.

  "The waves were great today," I commented. "I'd almost forgotten how fantastic the water feels."

  He smiled but again said nothing. I shifted slightly on the step. "How'd work go?" I asked.

  "The same," he said.

  He lapsed back into his own thoughts, and all I could think was that the same thing could be said about our conversations.

  Three

  Surfing is a solitary sport, one in which long stretches of boredom are interspersed with frantic activity, and it teaches you to flow with nature, instead of fighting it . . . it's about getting in the zone. That's what the surfing magazines say, anyway, and I mostly agree. There's nothing quite as exciting as catching a wave and living within a wall of water as it rolls toward shore. But I'm not like a lot of those dudes with freeze-dried skin and stringy hair who do it all day, every day, because they think it's the be-all and end-all of existence. It isn't. For me, it's more about the fact that the world is crazy noisy almost all the time, and when you're out there, it's not. You're able to hear yourself think."

  This is what I was telling Savannah, anyway, as we made our way toward the ocean early Sunday morning. At least, that's what I thought I was saying. For the most part, I was just sort of rambling, trying not to be too obvious about the fact that I really liked the way she looked in a bikini.

  "Like horseback riding," she said.

  "Huh?"

  "Hearing yourself think. That's why I like riding, too."

  I'd shown up a few minutes earlier. The best waves were usually early in the morning, and it was one of those clear, blue-sky days portending heat that meant the beach would be packed again. Savannah had been sitting on the steps out back, wrapped in a towel, the remains of the bonfire before her. Despite the fact that the party had no doubt gone on for hours after I'd left, there wasn't a single empty can or piece of trash anywhere. My impression of the group improved a bit.

  Despite the hour, the air was already warm. We spent a few minutes in the sand near the water's edge going over the basics of surfing, and I explained how to pop up on the board. When Savannah thought she was ready, I waded in carrying the board, walking beside her.

  There were only a few surfers out, the same ones I'd seen the day before. I was trying to figure out the best place to bring Savannah so she'd have enough room when I realized I could no longer see her.

  "Hold on, hold on!" she shouted from behind me. "Stop, stop . . ."

  I turned. Savannah was on her tiptoes as the first splashes of water hit her belly, and her upper body was immediately covered in gooseflesh. She appeared to be trying to lift herself from the water.

  "Let me get used to this. . . ." She gave a few quick, audible gasps and crossed her arms. "Wow. This is really cold. Holy cow!"

  Holy cow? It wasn't exactly something my buddies would say. "You'll get used to it," I said, smirking.

  "I don't like being cold. I hate being cold."

  "You live in the mountains where it snows."

  "Yeah, but we have these things called jackets and gloves and hats that we wear to keep warm. And we don't thrust ourselves into arctic waters first thing in the morning."

  "Funny," I said.

  She continued to hop up and down. "Yeah, real funny. I mean, geez!"

  Geez? I grinned. Her breathing gradually began to even out, but the gooseflesh was still there. She took another tiny step forward.

  "It works best if you just jump right in and go under instead of torturing yourself in stages," I suggested.

  "You do it your way, I'll do it mine," she said, unimpressed with my wisdom. "I can't believe you wanted to come out now. I was thinking sometime in the afternoon, when the temperature was above freezing."

  "It's almost eighty degrees."

  "Yeah, yeah," she said, finally acclimating. Uncrossing her arms, she took another series of breaths, then dipped maybe an inch. Steeling herself, she slapped a bit of water on her arms. "Okay, I think I'm getting there."

  "Don't rush for me. Really. Take your time."

  "I will, thank you," she said, ignoring the teasing tone. "Okay," she said again, more to herself than me. She took a small step forward, then another. As she moved, her face was a mask of concentration, and I liked the way it looked. So serious, so intense. So ridiculous.

  "Quit laughing at me," she said, noting my expression.

  "I'm not laughing."

  "I can see it in your face. You're laughing on the inside."

  "All right, I'll stop."

  Eventually she waded out to join me, and when the water was up to my shoulders, Savannah climbed on the board. I held it in place, trying again not to stare at her figure, which wasn't easy, considering it was right in front of me. I forced myself to monitor the swells behind us.

  "Now what?"

  "Do you remember what to do? Paddle hard, grab the board on both sides near the front, then pop up to your feet?"

  "Got it."

  "It's kind of tough at first. Don't be surprised if you fall, but if you do, just roll with it. It usually takes a few times to get it."

  "Okay," she said, and I saw a small swell approaching.

  "Get ready . . . ," I said, timing it. "Okay, start paddling. . . ."

  As the wave hit us, I pushed the board, giving it some momentum, and Savannah caught the wave. I don't know what I expected,
except that it wasn't to see her pop straight up, keep her balance, and ride the wave all the way back to shore, where it finally petered out. In the shallow water, she jumped off the board as it slowed and turned with dramatic flair toward me.

  "How was that?" she called out.

  Despite the distance between us, I couldn't look away. Oh man, I suddenly thought, I'm in real trouble.

  "I did gymnastics for years," she admitted. "I've always had a good sense of balance. I suppose I should have said something about that while you were telling me I was going to wipe out."

  We spent more than an hour in the water. She popped up every time and rode the waves to shore with ease; though she couldn't steer the board, I had no doubt that if she wanted to, she would be able to master that in no time.

  Afterward, we returned to the house. I waited out back while she went upstairs. While a few people had risen--three girls were on the deck staring at the ocean--most were still recovering from the night before and nowhere to be seen. Savannah emerged a couple of minutes later in shorts and a T-shirt, holding two cups of coffee. She sat beside me on the steps as we faced the water.

  "I didn't say you'd wipe out," I clarified. "I just said that if you did, you should roll with it."

  "Uh-huh," she said, her expression mischievous. She pointed to my cup. "Is your coffee okay?"

  "Tastes great," I said.

  "I have to start my day with coffee. It's my one vice."

  "Everyone's got to have one."

  She glanced at me. "What's yours?"

  "I don't have any," I answered, and she surprised me by giving me a playful nudge.

  "Did you know that last night was the first night of the full moon?"

  I did but thought it best not to admit it. "Really?" I said.

  "I've always loved full moons. Ever since I was a kid. I liked to think that they were an omen of sorts. I wanted to believe they always portended good things. Like if I was making a mistake, I would have the chance to start over."

  She said nothing else about it. Instead she brought the cup to her lips, and I watched as the steam wreathed her face.

  "What's on your agenda today?" I asked.

  "We're supposed to have a meeting sometime today, but other than that, nothing. Well, except for church. For me, I mean. And, well, whoever else wants to go. Which reminds me--what time is it?"

  I checked my watch. "A little after nine."

  "Already? I guess that doesn't give me much time. Service is at ten."

  I nodded, knowing our time together was almost up.

  "Do you want to go with me?" I heard her ask.

  "To church?"

  "Yeah. To church," she said. "Don't you go?"

  I wasn't sure what to say. It was obviously important to her, and though I got the impression that my answer would disappoint, I didn't want to lie. "Not really," I admitted. "I haven't been to church in years. I mean, I used to go as a kid, but . . ." I trailed off. "I don't know why," I finished.

  She stretched her legs out, waiting to see if I would add more. When I didn't, she arched an eyebrow. "So?"

  "What?"

  "Do you want to go with me or not?"

  "I don't have any clothes. I mean, this is all I have, and I doubt if I have enough time to go home, shower, and get back in time. Otherwise I would."

  She gave me the once-over. "Good." She patted my knee, the second time she'd touched me. "I'll get you some clothes."

  "You look great," Tim assured me. "The collar's a little snug, but I don't think anyone will be able to tell."

  In the mirror, I saw a stranger dressed in khakis and a pressed shirt and tie. I couldn't remember the last time I'd worn a tie. I wasn't sure I was happy about any of this or not. Tim, meanwhile, was way too chipper about the whole thing.

  "How'd she talk you into this?" he asked.

  "I have no idea."

  He laughed and, leaning over to tie his shoes, winked. "I told you she likes you."

  We've got chaplains in the army, and most of them are pretty good guys. On base, I got to know a couple of them fairly well, and one of them--Ted Jenkins--was the kind of guy you trusted on the spot. He didn't drink, and I'm not saying he was one of us, but he was always welcome when he showed up. He had a wife and a couple of rugrats, and he'd been in the service for fifteen years. He had personal experience when it came to struggles with family and military life in general, and if you ever sat down to talk with him, he really listened. You couldn't tell him everything--he was an officer, after all--and he ended up coming down fairly hard on a couple of guys in my platoon who admitted their escapades a bit too freely, but the thing was, he had this kind of presence that made you want to tell him anyway. I don't know what it was other than the fact that he was a good man and a hell of an army chaplain. He talked about God just as naturally as you might talk about your friend, not in that preachy, irritating way that generally turns me off. Nor did he press you to attend services on Sundays. He sort of left it up to you, and depending what was going on or how dangerous things got, he might find himself talking to either one or two people or a hundred. Before my platoon was sent to the Balkans, he probably baptized fifty people.

  I'd been baptized as a kid, so I didn't go that route, but like I said, it had been a long time since I'd been to service. I'd stopped going with my dad a long time ago, and I didn't know what to expect. Nor can I honestly say I was looking forward to it, but in the end, the service wasn't that bad. The pastor was low-key, the music was all right, and time didn't drag by the way it always seemed to when I was little. I'm not saying I got much out of it, but even so, I was glad I went, if only so I could talk about something new with my dad. And also because it gave me just a bit more time with Savannah.

  Savannah ended up sitting between Tim and me, and I watched her from the corner of my eye as she sang. She had a quiet, low-key singing voice but was always in tune, and I liked the way it sounded. Tim stayed focused on the scriptures, and on the way out, he stopped to visit with the pastor while Savannah and I waited in the shade of a dogwood tree out front. Tim looked animated as he chatted with the pastor.

  "Old friends?" I asked, nodding toward Tim. Despite the shade, I was getting hot and could feel trails of perspiration beginning to form.

  "No. I think his dad was the one who told him about this pastor. He had to use MapQuest last night to find this place." She fanned herself; in her sundress, she reminded me of a proper southern belle. "I'm glad you came."

  "So am I," I agreed.

  "Are you hungry?"

  "Getting there."

  "We have some food back at the house, if you want some. And you can give Tim his clothes back. I can tell you're hot and uncomfortable."

  "It's not half as hot as helmets, boots, and body armor, trust me."

  She tilted her head up at me. "I like hearing you talk about body armor. Not a lot of guys in my classes talk like you. I find it interesting."

  "You teasing me?"

  "Just noting for the record." She leaned gracefully against the tree. "I think Tim's finishing up."

  I followed her gaze, noticing nothing different. "How can you tell?"

  "See how he brought his hands together? That means he's getting ready to say good-bye. In just a second, he's going to put his hand out, he'll smile and nod, and then he'll be on his way."

  I watched Tim do exactly as she predicted and amble toward us. I noted her amused expression. She shrugged. "When you live in a small town like mine, there's not much to do other than watch people. You begin to see patterns after a while."

  There'd probably been too much Tim-watching in my humble opinion, but I wasn't about to admit it.

  "Hey there . . ." Tim raised a hand. "You two ready to head back?"

  "We've been waiting for you," she pointed out.

  "Sorry," he said. "We just got to talking."

  "You just get to talking with anyone and everyone."

  "I know," he said. "I'm working on being more standoffish
."

  She laughed, and while their familiar banter put me momentarily outside their circle of intimacy, all was forgotten when Savannah looped her arm through mine on our way back toward the car.

  Everyone was up by the time we got back, and most were already in their bathing suits and working on their tans. Some were lounging on the upper deck; most were clustered together on the beach out back. Music blasted from a stereo inside the house, coolers of beer stood refilled and ready, and more than a few were drinking: the age-old cure for the hangover headache. I passed no judgment; a beer sounded good, actually, but given that I'd just been to church, I figured I should pass.

  I changed my clothes, folding Tim's the way I'd learned in the army, then returned to the kitchen. Tim had made a plate of sandwiches.

  "Help yourself," he said, gesturing. "We have tons of food. I should know--I'm the one who spent three hours shopping yesterday." He rinsed his hands and dried them on a towel. "All right. Now it's my turn to change. Savannah will be out in a minute."

  He left the kitchen. Alone, I looked around. The house was decorated in that traditional beachy way: lots of bright-colored wicker furniture, lamps made with seashells, small statues of lighthouses above the mantel, pastel paintings of the coast.

  Lucy's parents had owned a place like this. Not here, but on Bald Head Island. They never rented it out, preferring to spend their summers there. Of course, the old man still had to work in Winston-Salem, and he and the wife would head back for a couple of days a week, leaving poor Lucy all alone. Except for me, of course. Had they known what was happening on those days, they probably wouldn't have left us alone.

  "Hey there," Savannah said. She'd donned her bikini again, though she was wearing shorts over the bottoms. "I see you're back to normal."

  "How can you tell?"

  "Your eyes aren't bulging because your collar's too tight."

  I smiled. "Tim made some sandwiches."

  "Great. I'm starved," she said, moving around the kitchen. "Did you grab one?"

  "Not yet," I said.

  "Well, dig in. I hate to eat alone."

  We stood in the kitchen as we ate. The girls lying on the deck hadn't realized we were there, and I could hear one of them talking about what she did with one of the guys last night, and none of it sounded as though she were in town on a goodwill mission for the poor. Savannah wrinkled her nose as if to say, Way too much information, then turned to the fridge. "I need a drink. Do you want something?"

 
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NICHOLAS SPARKS SERIES:

Jeremy Marsh
The Notebook