Home > Every Breath(5)

Every Breath(5)
Author: Nicholas Sparks

The drive was uneventful, but the world beyond the car windows was foreign to him. The landscape, flat and lush and verdant, seemed to stretch in every direction; he saw palms intermingled with oaks and pine trees, and grass the color of emeralds. Wilmington was a small, low-lying city featuring a mix of chain stores and local businesses that eventually gave way to a historic area with homes that looked at least a couple of hundred years old. His driver pointed out the Cape Fear River, its brackish waters dotted with fishing boats. On the roads, he saw cars and SUVs and minivans, none of them straddling the lanes as they did in Bulawayo, avoiding carts and animals. No one was riding a bicycle or walking, and nearly every person he saw on the city sidewalks was white. The world he’d left behind felt as distant as a dream.

An hour later, Tru crossed a floating pontoon bridge and was dropped off at a three-story home nestled against a low-rising dune in a place called Sunset Beach, an island just off the coast near the South Carolina border. It took him a moment to understand that the entire bottom floor was comprised of garages; the whole structure seemed almost grotesque compared to the much smaller house next door, which displayed a for sale sign out front. He wondered whether the driver had made a mistake, but the driver checked the address again and assured him that he was in the right place. As the car pulled away, he heard the deep, rhythmic pulsation of ocean waves rolling ashore. He tried to remember the last time he’d heard that sound. A decade at least, Tru guessed as he climbed the steps to the second floor.

The driver had given him an envelope containing the key to the front door, and he stepped past the foyer into an expansive great room with pine flooring and a wood-beamed ceiling. The beach house decor looked like something staged for a magazine, every throw pillow and blanket placed with tasteful precision. Large windows offered a view of the back deck and an expanse of sea grass and dunes beyond, stretching to the ocean. A spacious dining area extended off the great room, and the designer kitchen included custom cabinetry, marble countertops, and premium appliances.

A note on the counter informed him that the refrigerator and pantry had been stocked with food and drinks, and that if he needed to go anywhere, he could call the limousine company. Should he be interested in ocean activities, a surfboard and fishing gear could be found in the garage. According to the note, Tru’s father hoped to arrive on Saturday afternoon. He apologized that he wasn’t able to get there sooner, although no explanation was offered for the delay. As he set the note aside, Tru was struck by the idea that perhaps his father was as ambivalent about their meeting as Tru was…which raised the question as to why he’d provided the airline ticket in the first place. Well, Tru would soon find out.

It was Tuesday evening, so Tru would have a few days to himself. He hadn’t anticipated that, but there wasn’t much he could do at this point. He spent the next few minutes exploring the house, learning the layout. The master bedroom was down the hall from the kitchen, and it was there that he left his belongings. Upstairs, there were additional bedrooms and bathrooms, all of which appeared pristine and unused. In the master bathroom he found fresh towels along with soap, shampoo, and conditioner, and he treated himself to an extra-long shower, lingering beneath the spray.

His hair was still damp as he stepped onto the back deck. The air remained warm, but the sun was sinking lower and the sky had fanned into a thousand shades of yellow and orange. Squinting into the distance, he could just make out what looked to be a pod of porpoises playing in the waves beyond the breakers. A latched gate gave way to steps that descended to a planked walkway over the grasses; following the steps, he trekked out to the final dune, discovering more steps leading to the beach.

There were few people about. In the distance, he saw a woman trailing behind a small dog; in the opposite direction, a few surfers floated on their boards near a pier that stretched into the ocean like a pointed finger. He started toward the pier, walking on the compact sand near the water’s edge, musing that until recently, he’d never heard of Sunset Beach. He wasn’t sure he’d ever thought about North Carolina at all. He tried to recall whether any of his guests over the years had come from here, without luck. He supposed it didn’t make any difference.

At the pier, he took the stairs up and strolled to the end. Resting his arms on the railings, he gazed over water that stretched to the horizon. The sight of it, the immensity of it, was almost beyond comprehension. It reminded him that there was an entire world out there to explore, and he wondered if he would ever get around to doing it. Maybe when Andrew was older, they’d spend some time traveling together…

As the breeze picked up, the moon began its slow ascent into an indigo sky. He took it as a cue to head back. He assumed his father owned the place. It might have been a rental, but the furnishings were too pricey to trust to strangers, and besides, if that was the case, why not simply put Tru up at a hotel? He wondered again about the delay until Saturday. Why had he flown Tru out so far in advance? If the man was indeed dying, Tru speculated that it could be something medical, which meant there was no guarantee about Saturday, either.

But what would happen when his father did show up? The man was a stranger; a single meeting wasn’t going to change that. Nonetheless, Tru hoped he’d be able to answer some questions, which was the only reason Tru had decided to come in the first place.

Entering the house, he fished out a steak from the refrigerator. He had to open a few of the cabinets before he found a cast-iron fry pan, but the stove, as fancy as it was, functioned similarly to the ones back home. There were also various food items from a place called Murray’s Deli, and he added what appeared to be some kind of cabbage salad as well as potato salad to his plate. After he ate, he washed the plate, glass, and utensils by hand and grabbed his guitar before returning to the back deck. He played and sang softly to himself for an hour while the occasional shooting star passed overhead. He thought about Andrew and Kim, his mother and grandfather, before finally becoming sleepy enough to go to bed.

In the morning, he did a hundred push-ups and a hundred sit-ups before trying and failing to make some coffee. He couldn’t figure out how the machine worked. Too many buttons, too many options, and he had no idea where to add the water. He decided to visit the beach instead, hoping to stumble upon a place to buy a cup.

Like the evening before, he had the beach mostly to himself. He thought about how pleasant it was to spontaneously take a walk. He couldn’t do that at Hwange, not without a rifle, anyway. He breathed deeply when he reached the sand, tasting salt in the air, feeling like the foreigner he was.

He slipped his hands into his pockets, taking in the morning. He had been walking for fifteen minutes when he spotted a cat crouched on top of a dune, next to a deck that was under repair, the steps to the beach still unfinished. At the farm, there had been barn cats, but this one looked as though it spent most of its time indoors. Just then, a small white dog raced past him, barreling toward a flock of seagulls that burst into the air like a small explosion. The dog eventually veered toward the dune, spotted the cat, and took off like a rocket. The cat jumped up to the deck as the dog scrambled up the dune in pursuit, both of them vanishing from sight. A minute later, he thought he heard the distant screech of car tires, followed by the sound of a dog yelping and crying.

He glanced behind him; halfway down the beach, he saw a woman standing near the water, no doubt the dog’s owner, her gaze fixed on the ocean. He guessed she was the same woman he’d spotted the night before, but she was too far away to have seen or heard what had happened.

Hesitating briefly, Tru started after the dog, his feet slipping in the sand as he scaled the dune. Stepping onto the deck, he followed the walkway, eventually reaching a new set of steps leading on one side up to the house’s deck and on the other, down to the ground. He went down, winding between two houses that were similar in style to the one where he was staying. Climbing over a low retaining wall, he continued to the road. No car in sight. No hysterical people or dog lying in the road, either. That was good news, as an initial matter. He knew from experience that wounded animals often sought shelter if they were still able to move, nature’s way of allowing them to heal while hiding from predators.

He walked along one side of the road, searching the bushes and around trees. He didn’t see anything. Crossing the street, he repeated the process and eventually came across the dog standing near a hedge, its rear leg bobbing up and down. The dog was panting and shaking, whether from pain or shock, Tru couldn’t tell. He debated whether to go back to the beach and try to find the woman, but he was afraid the dog might hobble away to parts unknown. Removing his sunglasses, he squatted down and held his hand out.

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