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Every Breath
Author: Nicholas Sparks

KINDRED SPIRIT

There are stories that rise from mysterious, unknown places, and others that are discovered, a gift from someone else. This story is one of the latter. On a cool and blustery day in the late spring of 2016, I drove to Sunset Beach, North Carolina, one of many small islands between Wilmington and the South Carolina border. I parked my truck near the pier and hiked down the beach, heading for Bird Island, an uninhabited coastal preserve. Locals had told me there was something I should see; perhaps, they’d even suggested, the site would end up in one of my novels. They told me to keep my eye out for an American flag; when I spotted it in the distance, I’d know I was getting close.

Not long after the flag came into view, I kept my eyes peeled. I was to look for a mailbox called Kindred Spirit. The mailbox—planted on a pole of aging driftwood near a saw grass–speckled dune—has been around since 1983 and belongs to no one and everyone. Anyone can leave a letter or postcard; any passerby can read whatever has been placed inside. Thousands of people do so every year. Over time, Kindred Spirit has been a repository of hopes and dreams in written form…and always, there are love stories to be found.

The beach was deserted. As I approached the isolated mailbox on its lonely stretch of shoreline, I could just make out a wooden bench beside it. It was the perfect resting place, an outpost of reflection.

Reaching inside the mailbox, I found two postcards, several previously opened letters, a recipe for Brunswick stew, a journal that appeared to have been written in German, and a thick manila envelope. There were pens, a pad of unused paper, and envelopes—presumably for anyone who was inspired to add their own story to the contents. Taking a seat on the bench, I perused the postcards and the recipe before turning to the letters. Almost immediately, I noticed that no one used last names. Some of the letters had first names, others had only initials, and still others were completely anonymous, which only added to the sense of mystery.

But anonymity seemed to allow for candid reflection. I read about a woman who, in the aftermath of a struggle with cancer, had met the man of her dreams at a Christian bookstore, but worried that she wasn’t good enough for him. I read about a child who hoped to one day become an astronaut. There was a letter from a young man who planned to propose to his sweetheart in a hot air balloon, and still another from a man who wanted to ask his neighbor on a date but feared rejection. There was a letter from someone recently released from prison who wanted nothing more than to start his life over. The final missive was from a man whose dog, Teddy, had recently been put to sleep. The man was still grieving, and after finishing the letter, I studied the photograph that had been tucked inside the envelope, showing a black Labrador retriever with friendly eyes and a graying muzzle. The man had signed his initials A.K., and I found myself hoping he would find a way to fill the void that Teddy’s absence had left behind.

By then, the breeze was steady and the clouds had begun to darken. A storm was rolling in. I returned the recipe, postcards, and letters to the mailbox and debated opening the manila envelope. The thickness indicated a substantial number of pages, and the last thing I wanted was to get caught in the rain as I trekked back to my truck. Flipping over the envelope as I debated, I saw that someone had printed on the back The Most Amazing Story Ever!

A plea for recognition? A challenge? Written by the author, or by someone who’d examined the contents? I wasn’t sure, but how could I resist?

I opened the clasp. Inside the envelope were a dozen or so pages, photocopies of three letters, and some photocopied drawings of a man and woman who clearly looked to be in love with each other. I set those aside and reached for the story. The first line made me pause:

The destiny that matters most in anyone’s life is the one concerning love.

The tone was unlike the previous letters, promising something grand, it seemed. I settled in to read. After a page or so, my curiosity became interest; after a few more pages, I couldn’t put the story aside. Over the next half hour, I laughed and felt my throat tighten; I ignored the uptick in the breeze and clouds that were turning the color of charcoal. Thunder and flickers of lightning were reaching the distant edge of the island when I read the final words with a sense of wonder.

I should have left then. I could see sheets of rain marching across the waves toward me, but instead, I read the story a second time. On that reading, I was able to hear the voices of the characters with utter clarity. By the time I read the letters and examined the drawings, I could feel the idea taking shape that I might somehow find the writer and broach the possibility of turning his story into a book.

But finding that person wouldn’t be easy. Most of the events had taken place long in the past—more than a quarter century earlier—and instead of names, there were only single initials. Even in the letters, the original names had been whited out before the pages were copied. There was nothing to indicate who the writer or artist might have been.

A few clues remained, however. In the part of the story dating back to 1990, there was mention of a restaurant with a deck out back and an indoor fireplace, where a cannonball allegedly salvaged from one of Blackbeard’s ships sat atop the mantel. There was also reference to a cottage on an island off the North Carolina coast, within walking distance of the restaurant. And in what seemed to be the most recently written pages, the writer spoke of a construction project currently under way at a beach house, on a different island altogether. I had no idea whether the project was now finished, but I had to start somewhere. Though years had passed, I hoped the drawings would eventually help me identify the subjects. And, of course, there was also the Kindred Spirit mailbox on the beach where I sat, which played a pivotal role in the story.

By then, the sky was positively threatening and I knew I was out of time. Sliding the pages back into the manila envelope, I returned it to the mailbox and hurried to my truck. I barely beat the downpour. Had I waited another few minutes, I would have been drenched, and despite having my windshield wipers on high, I could barely see through the glass. I drove home, made myself a late lunch, and stared out the window, continuing to think about the couple that I’d read about on the pages. By evening, I knew that I wanted to go back to Kindred Spirit and examine the story again, but weather and some business travel prevented me from returning for nearly a week.

When I finally made it back, the other letters, the recipe, and the journal were there, but the manila envelope was gone. I wondered what had become of it. I was curious as to whether a stranger had been as moved by the pages as I’d been and had taken them, or if perhaps there was some sort of caretaker who occasionally purged the mailbox. Mainly, I wondered whether the author had had second thoughts about revealing the story and come to retrieve it himself.

It made me want to talk to the writer even more, but family and work kept me busy for another month, and it wasn’t until June that I found time to begin my quest. I won’t bore you with all the details regarding my search—it took the better part of a week, countless phone calls, visits to various chambers of commerce and county offices where building permits were recorded, and hundreds of miles on the truck. Since the first part of the story took place decades ago, some of the reference points had long since disappeared. I managed to track down the location of the restaurant—it was now a chic seafood bistro with white tablecloths—and used that as a starting point for my exploratory excursions, in order to get a sense of the area. After that, following the trail of building permits, I visited one island after the next, and on one of my many walks up and down the beach, I eventually came across the sound of hammering and a power drill—not uncommon for salted and weather-beaten homes along the coast. When I saw an older man working on a ramp that led from the top of the dune to the beach, though, I felt a sudden jolt. I remembered the drawings, and even from a distance suspected that I had found one of the characters I had read about.

Walking over, I introduced myself. Up close, I became even more certain it was him. I noted the quiet intensity I’d read about and the same observant blue eyes referenced in one of the letters. Doing the math, I figured him to be in his late sixties, which was the right age. After a bit of small talk, I asked him point-blank whether he’d written the story that had ended up in Kindred Spirit. In response, he deliberately turned his gaze toward the ocean, saying nothing for perhaps a minute. When he turned to face me again, he said that he would answer my questions the following afternoon, but only if I was willing to lend him a hand on his construction project.

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