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The Return / (by Nicholas Sparks, 2020) -

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The Return /  (by Nicholas Sparks, 2020) -

The Return / (by Nicholas Sparks, 2020) -

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The Return / (by Nicholas Sparks, 2020) -
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2020
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Nicholas Sparks
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Kyf Brewer
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upper-intermediate
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09:56:40
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64 kbps
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mp3, pdf, doc

The Return / :

.doc (Word) nicholas_sparks_-_the_return.doc [1.47 Mb] (c: 6) .
.pdf nicholas_sparks_-_the_return.pdf [1.7 Mb] (c: 7) .
audiobook (MP3) .


: The Return

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To the Van Wie family Jeff, Torri, Anna, Audrey, and Ava Prologue 2019 The church resembles an alpine chapel, the kind you might find in the mountains outside Salzburg, and inside the cool air is welcoming. Because its August in the South, the temperature is sweltering, made worse by the suit and tie Im wearing. In my daily life, I generally dont wear suits. Theyre uncomfortable and as a physician, Ive learned that my patients respond better to me when Im dressed more casually, as they tend to be. Im here to attend a wedding. Ive known the bride for more than five years now, though Im not sure that she would consider us friends. Though wed spoken regularly for more than a year after she left New Bern, our relationship since then has been limited to a couple of texts every now and then, sometimes instigated by her, sometimes by me. We do, however, have an undeniable bond, one that has its roots in events that occurred years ago. Sometimes its hard for me to remember the man I was when our paths first crossed, but isnt that normal? Life endlessly offers us chances to set new directions and in the process we grow and change; when we look in the rearview mirror, we catch a glimpse of former selves who sometimes seem unrecognizable. Some things havent changedmy name, for instancebut Im thirty-seven now and in the early stages of a new career, one Id never considered in the first three decades of my life. While Id once loved the piano, I no longer play the instrument; where Id grown up with a loving family, its been a long time since Ive seen any of them. There are reasons for that, but Ill get to those parts later. Today, Im simply glad to be here, and to have made it on time. My flight from Baltimore had been delayed and the line to pick up my rental car was long. Though Im not the last to arrive, the church is more than half full and I find a seat in the third row from the back, doing my best to slip in unobserved. The pews in front of me are filled with women wearing the kind of hats you expect to find at the Kentucky Derby, extravagant confections of bows and flowers that goats might enjoy eating. The sight makes me smile, a reminder that in the South, there are always moments when its possible to slip into a world that seems to exist nowhere else. As I continue to take in my surroundings, the sight of flowers also makes me think about bees. Bees have been part of my life for most of my living memory. They are remarkable and wonderful creatures, endlessly interesting to me. These days, I tend to more than a dozen beehivesits much less work than you might imagineand Ive come to believe that the bees take care of me in the same way they take care of everyone. Without them, human life would nearly be impossible, since we rely on bees for a large part of our entire food supply. Theres something impossibly wonderful about that concept, that life as we know it can come down to something as simple as a bee making its way from one plant to another. It makes me believe my part-time hobby is important in the grand scheme of things, and yet, I further understand that tending beehives also led me here, to this small-town church, far from the landmarks of home. Of course, my storylike any good storyis also the story of events and circumstances and other people as well, including a pair of old-timers who liked to sit in rocking chairs in front of an old mercantile store in North Carolina. Most important, its the story of two different women, though one was really just a girl at the time. Im the first to notice that when others tell their stories, they tend to frame them in ways that make them the star. Ill probably fall into the same trap, but Id like to offer the caveat that most of the events still strike me as accidentalthroughout my telling, please remember that I regard myself as no kind of hero. As for the ending of this story, I suppose this wedding is a coda of sorts. Five years ago, I would have been hard-pressed to say whether the conclusion of these intertwining tales was a happy, tragic, or bittersweet one. And now? Frankly, Im even less certain, as Ive come here wondering whether the story might in some winding fashion pick up exactly where it left off. To understand what I mean, youll have to travel back in time with me, to revisit a world that despite all that has happened in the intervening years, still feels close enough to touch. Chapter 1 2014 I first noticed the girl walking past my house the day after Id moved in. Over the next month and a half, I saw her shuffle by a few times a week, head down and shoulders hunched. For a long time, neither of us said a word to each other. I suspected she was in her teenssomething about the way she carried herself suggested she was struggling beneath the twin burdens of low self-esteem and irritation at the worldbut at thirty-two Id reached the age where it was almost impossible for me to tell. Aside from noting her long brown hair and wide-set eyes, the only thing I knew for sure about her was that she lived in the trailer park up the road and that she liked to walk. Or more likely, she had to walk, because she didnt own a car. The April skies were clear, the temperature hovering in the low seventies, with just enough breeze to carry the perfumed aroma of flowers. The dogwoods and azaleas in the yard had roared into bloom almost overnight, framing the gravel road that wound past my grandfathers house just outside New Bern, North Carolina, a place Id recently inherited. And I, Trevor Benson, convalescing physician and disabled veteran by profession, was shaking mothballs from a box along the base of the front porch, lamenting that it wasnt how Id planned to spend my morning. The problem with doing chores around the house was never knowing quite when you might be finished, since there was always something else that needed to be doneor whether fixing up the old place was even worthwhile at all. The houseand I used the term looselywasnt much by way of appearance and the years had taken their toll. My grandfather built it himself after returning from World War II, and though he could build things to last, he didnt have a lot of talent when it came to design. The house was a rectangle with porches on the front and backtwo bedrooms, kitchen, family room, and two bathrooms; the cedar siding had faded to a grayish silver over the years, mimicking my grandfathers hair. The roof had been patched, air seeped through the windows, and the kitchen floor slanted to the point that if liquid spilled, it became a tiny river that flowed to the door that led to the back porch. I like to think it made cleaning up easier for my grandfather, whod lived by himself the last thirty years of his life. The property, however, was special. It was a shade over six acres, with an aging, slightly tilting barn and a honey shedwhere my grandfather harvested his honeyand dotted with seemingly every flowering plant known to mankind, including clover patches and wildflowers. From now until the end of summer, the property would resemble a ground-level fireworks display. It was also situated on Brices Creek, where dark, brackish water flowed so slowly that it often reflected the sky like a mirror. Sunsets turned the creek into a cacophony of burgundy and red and orange and yellow, while the slowly fading rays pierced the curtain of Spanish moss draped over the tree branches. The honey bees loved the place, which had been my grandfathers intent, since Im pretty sure he loved bees more than people. There were about twenty beehives on the property; hed been a part-time apiarist all his life, and it often struck me that the hives were in better condition than either the house or the barn. Id checked on the hives a few times from a distance since my arrival here, and though it was still early in the season, I could tell the colonies were healthy. The bee population was growing rapidly, as it always did in springI could actually hear them buzzing if I listenedand Id left them to their own devices. Instead, Id spent most of my time rendering the house livable again. I cleaned out the cupboards, setting aside a few jars of honey to keep, and tossing the remaindera box of stale crackers, nearly empty jars of peanut butter and jelly, and a bag of dried-out apples. The drawers were crammed with junkout-of-date coupons, half-used candles, magnets, and pens that didnt work, all of which went into the garbage. The refrigerator was mostly empty and oddly clean, without any of the moldy items or disgusting smells Id expected. I purged a ton of junk from the housemost of the furniture was half a century old, and my grandfather had a minor hoarding issueand then hired various crews to do the more difficult work. I had had a contractor do a cosmetic remodel on one of the bathrooms; a plumber fixed the leak in the kitchen faucet; I had the floors sanded and stained, the interior painted; and last but not least, I had the back door replaced. It was cracked near the jamb and had been boarded over. Then, after bringing in a crew to clean the place from top to bottom, I got my laptop set up with Wi-Fi and picked up some furniture for the living room and bedroom, as well as a new television for the family room. The original television had rabbit ears antennae and was the size of a treasure chest. Goodwill declined the donation of my grandfathers used furniture, despite my argument that it could all be regarded as antiques, so it ended up at the dump. The porches were in relatively good shape, though, and I spent most of my mornings and evenings there. Which is how and why Id started with the mothballs. Spring in the South isnt only about flowers and honey bees and pretty sunsets, especially when you live adjacent to a creek in what seemed like the wilderness. Because it had been warmer than usual recently, snakes had begun to wake from their winter slumber. Id spotted a big one on the back porch when Id wandered outside that morning with my coffee. After having the bejesus scared out of me and spilling half the coffee down the front of my shirt, I quickly ducked back inside the house. I had no idea whether the snake was poisonous or what kind it was. Im not a snake expert. But unlike some peoplemy grandfather, for instanceI didnt want to kill it, either. I just wanted it to stay away from my house and live over there. I knew that snakes did useful thingslike killing mice, which Id heard scurrying in the walls at night. The sound creeped me out; despite spending every summer here when I was a kid, Im not used to country living. Id always considered myself more of a condo-in-the-city guy, which is what I had been, right up until the explosion that blew up not only my entire world, but me as well. Which was why I was convalescing in the first place, but more on that later. For now, though, lets get back to the snake. After changing shirts, I vaguely remembered that my grandfather used mothballs to keep snakes away. He was convinced that mothballs had magic powers to repel all kinds of thingsbats, mice, bugs, and snakesand he would buy the stuff by the case. Id spotted plenty of them in the barn, and figuring my grandfather must have known something, I seized a box and began to scatter them liberally around the house, first in the back and along the sides, then finally in the front. That was when I again spied the girl trudging down the road that led past the house. She was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and when I lifted my gaze, she must have felt my eyes on her because she glanced in my direction. She didnt smile or wave; instead, she ducked her head as if hoping to avoid acknowledging my presence. I shrugged and went back to work, if dropping mothballs could actually be considered work. For whatever reason, though, I found myself thinking about the trailer park where she lived. It was at the end of the road, about a mile away. Out of curiosity, Id walked down there shortly after Id arrived. It had sprung up since the last time Id visited, and I suppose I wanted to know who the new neighbors were. My first thought upon seeing it was that it made my grandfathers place look like the Taj Mahal. Six or seven ancient and decrepit trailers appeared to have been dropped haphazardly on a dirt lot; in the far corner were the remains of another trailer that had caught fire, leaving only a black, partially melted husk that had never been cleared away. In between the trailers, clotheslines drooped between slanting poles. Scrawny chickens pecked an obstacle course of cars on blocks and rusting appliances, avoiding only a feral pit bull chained to an old discarded bumper. The dog had teeth the size of bacon and barked so ferociously at my presence that spittle flew from its foaming mouth. Not a nice doggy, I remembered thinking. Part of me wondered why anyone would choose to live in a place like this, but then again, I already knew the answer. On my walk back home, I felt pity for the tenants and then chastised myself for being a snob because I knew Id been luckier than most, at least when it came to money. Do you live here? I heard a voice ask. Glancing up, I saw the girl. Shed doubled back and was standing a few yards away, clearly keeping her distance, but close enough for me to notice a spray of light freckles on cheeks that were so pale as to seem almost translucent. On her arms I noted a couple of bruises, like shed bumped into something. She wasnt particularly pretty and there was something unfinished about her, which made me think again that she was a teenager. Her wary gaze suggested that she was prepared to run if I made the smallest move toward her. I do now, I said, offering a smile. But I dont know how long Ill be staying. The old man died. The one who used to live here. His name was Carl. I know. He was my grandfather. Oh. She slipped a hand into her back pocket. He gave me honey. That sounds like something hed do. I wasnt sure if that was true, but it struck me as the right thing to say. He used to eat at the Trading Post, she said. He was always nice. Slow Jims Trading Post was one of those ramshackle stores so ubiquitous in the South and had been around longer than Id been alive. My grandfather used to bring me there whenever I visited. It was the size of a three-car garage with a covered porch out front, and it sold everything from gas to milk and eggs, to fishing equipment, live bait, and auto parts. There were old-fashioned gas pumps out frontno credit or debit acceptedand a grill that served hot food. Once, I remember finding a bag of plastic toy soldiers wedged between a bag of marshmallows and a box of fishing hooks. There was little rhyme or reason to the offerings on the shelves or displayed on the walls, but I always thought it was one of the coolest stores ever. Do you work there? She nodded before pointing at the box in my hand. Why are you putting mothballs around the house? I stared at the box in my hand, realizing that Id forgotten I was holding it. There was a snake on my porch this morning. Ive heard that mothballs will keep them away. She pursed her lips before taking a step backward. Okay, then. I just wanted to know if you were living here now. Im Trevor Benson, by the way. At the sound of my name, she stared at me. Working up the courage to ask the obvious. What happened to your face? I knew she was referring to the thin scar that ran from my hairline to my jaw, which reinforced the impression of her youth. Adults usually wouldnt bring it up. Instead, theyd pretend they hadnt noticed. Mortar round in Afghanistan. A few years back. Oh. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. Did it hurt? Yes. Oh, she said again. I guess Ill get going now. All right, I said. She started back toward the road before suddenly turning around again. It wont work, she called out. What wont work? The mothballs. Snakes dont give a lick about mothballs. You know that for sure? Everyone knows it. Tell that to my grandfather, I thought. Then what should I do? If I dont want snakes on my porch? She seemed to consider her answer. Maybe you should live in a place where there arent any snakes. I laughed. She was an odd one, for sure, but I realized that it was the first time Id laughed since Id moved here, maybe my first laugh in months. Nice meeting you. I watched her go, surprised when she slowly pirouetted. Im Callie, she called out. Nice to meet you, Callie. When she finally vanished from view, blocked by the azaleas, I debated whether to continue putting out mothballs. I had no idea whether she was right or wrong, but in the end, I chose to call it a day. I was in the mood for some lemonade and wanted to sit on the back porch and relax, if only because my psychiatrist recommended that I take time to relax while I still had time. He said it would help me keep The Darkness away. * * * My psychiatrist sometimes used flowery language like The Darkness to describe PTSD, also known as post-traumatic stress disorder. When I asked him why, he explained that every patient was different and that part of his job was to find words that accurately reflected the mood and feelings of the patient in a way that would lead the patient along the slow path toward recovery. Since hed been working with me, hed referred to my PTSD as turmoil, issues, struggle, the butterfly effect, emotion dysregulation, trigger sensitivity, and of course, The Darkness. It kept our sessions interesting, and I had to admit that darkness was about as accurate a description of the way Id been feeling as any of them. For a long time after the explosion, my mood was dark, as black as the night sky without stars or a moon, even if I didnt fully realize why. Early on, I was stubbornly in denial about PTSD, but then again, Id always been stubborn. In all candor, my anger, depression, and insomnia made perfect sense to me at the time. Whenever I glanced in the mirror, I was reminded of what had happened at Kandahar Airfield on September 9, 2011, when a rocket aimed at the hospital where I was working impacted near the entrance, only seconds after Id exited the building. There is a bit of irony in my choice of words, since glancing in the mirror isnt the same as it once was. I was blinded in my right eye, which means I have no depth perception. Staring at a reflection of myself feels a little like watching swimming fish on an old computer screen saveralmost real, but not quiteand even if I were able to get past that, my other wounds are as obvious as a lone flag planted atop Mount Everest. Ive already mentioned the scar on my face, but shrapnel left my torso pockmarked like the moon. The pinkie and ring finger on my left hand were blown offparticularly unfortunate since Im a leftyand I lost my left ear as well. Believe it or not, that was the wound that bothered me the most about my appearance. A human head doesnt look natural without an ear. I looked strangely lopsided and it wasnt until that moment that Id ever really appreciated my ear at all. In the rare times I thought about my ears, it was always in the context of hearing things. But try wearing sunglasses with just one ear and youll understand why I felt the loss acutely. I havent yet mentioned the spinal injuries, which meant having to learn how to walk again, or the thrumming headaches that lingered for months, all of which left me a physical wreck. But the good doctors at Walter Reed fixed me up. Well, most of me, anyway. As soon as I was upright again, my care shifted to my old alma mater Johns Hopkins, where the cosmetic surgeries were performed. I now have a prosthetic earso well done I can hardly tell its fakeand my eye appears normal, even if its completely useless. They couldnt do much about the fingersthey were fertilizer in Afghanistan by thenbut a plastic surgeon was able to diminish the size of my facial scar to the thin, white line that it now is. Its noticeable, but its not as though little kids scream at the sight of me. I like to tell myself that it adds character, that beneath the surface of the suave and debonair man before you exists a man of intensity and courage, who has experienced and survived real danger. Or something like that. Still, along with my body, my entire life was blown up as well, including my career. I didnt know what to do with myself or my future; I didnt know how to handle the flashbacks or insomnia or my hair-trigger anger, or any of the other crazy symptoms associated with PTSD. Things went from bad to worse until I hit rock bottomthink a four-day bender, where I woke covered in vomitand I finally realized that I needed help. I found a psychiatrist named Eric Bowen, who was an expert in CBT and DBT, or cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapies. In essence, both CBT and DBT focus on behaviors as a way to help control or manage what youre thinking or feeling. If youre feeling put-upon, force yourself to stand up straight; if youre feeling overwhelmed because youre faced with a complex task, try to lessen that sensation with simple tasks of things you can do, like starting with the first easy step, and then, after that, doing the next simple thing. It takes a lot of work to modify behaviorand there are a lot of other aspects to CBT and DBTbut slowly but surely I started to get my act back together. With that came thoughts of the future. Dr. Bowen and I discussed all sorts of career options, but in the end, I realized that I missed the practice of medicine. I contacted Johns Hopkins and applied for another residency. This time, in psychiatry. I think Bowen was flattered by that. Long story short, strings were pulledmaybe because Id been there before, maybe because I was a disabled vetand exceptions were granted. I was accepted as a psychiatric resident, with a start date in July. Not long after Id received the congratulatory notification from Johns Hopkins, I learned that my grandfather had had a stroke. It occurred in Easley, South Carolina, a town Id never heard him mention before. I was urged to come to the hospital quickly, as he didnt have much time left. I couldnt fathom why he was there. As far as I knew, he hadnt left New Bern in years. By the time I got there and found him in the hospital, he could barely speak; it was all he could do to choke out a single word at a time. Even those were hard to understand. He said some odd things to me, things that hurt me even if they made no sense, but I couldnt shake the feeling that he was trying to communicate something important before he finally passed away. As his only remaining family, it was up to me to make the funeral arrangements. I was certain he wanted to be buried in New Bern. I had him transported back to his hometown, set up a small graveside service, which had more attendees than Id imagined there would be, and spent a lot of time at his house, wandering the property and wrestling with my grief and guilt. Because my parents were so busy with their own lives, Id spent most of my summers growing up in New Bern, and I missed my grandfather with an ache that felt like a physical vise. He was funny, he was wise and kind, and he always made me feel older and smarter than I really was. When I was eight, he let me take a puff from his corncob pipe; he taught me how to fly-fish and let me help whenever he repaired an engine. He taught me everything about bees and beekeeping, and when I was a teenager, he told me that one day, I would meet a woman who would change my life forever. When I asked how I would know if Id met the right one, he winked and told me that if I wasnt sure, then Id better just keep on looking. Somehow, with all that had happened since Kandahar, I hadnt made time to visit him during the past few years. I know he worried about my condition, but I hadnt wanted to share with him the demons I was battling. Hell, it was hard enough to talk about my life with Dr. Bowen, and even though I knew my grandfather wouldnt judge me, it felt easier to keep my distance. It crushed me that he was taken before I had the chance to really reconnect with him. To top it off, a local attorney contacted me right after the funeral to let me know that Id inherited my grandfathers property, so I found myself the owner of the very home where Id spent so many formative summers as a kid. In the weeks following the funeral, I spent a lot of time reflecting on all the words Id left unspoken to the man who had loved me so unconditionally. My mind also kept returning to the odd things my grandfather had said to me on his deathbed, and I wondered why hed been in Easley, South Carolina, in the first place. Did it have something to do with the bees? Was he visiting an old friend? Dating a woman? The questions continued to gnaw at me. I spoke to Dr. Bowen about it, and he suggested that I try to find the answers. The holidays passed without notice, and with the arrival of the new year I listed my condo with a realtor, thinking it might take a few months to sell. Lo and behold, I had an offer within days, and closed in February. Since Id soon be moving to Baltimore for residency, it didnt make sense to find a place to rent temporarily. I thought about my grandfathers place in New Bern and figured, why not? I could get out of Pensacola, maybe get the old place ready to sell. If I was lucky, I might even be able to figure out why my grandfather had been in Easley, and what on earth hed been trying to tell me. Which is how and why I found myself scattering mothballs outside his rattletrap old cabin. * * * I didnt really have lemonade on the back porch. Thats how my grandfather used to refer to beer, and when I was little, one of the great thrills of my young life was getting him a lemonade from the icebox. Strangely, it always came in a bottle labeled Budweiser. I prefer Yuengling, from Americas oldest brewery. When I attended the Naval Academy, an upperclassman named Ray Kowalski introduced me to it. He was from Pottsville, Pennsylvaniahome of the Yuengling Breweryand he convinced me there was no finer beer. Interestingly, Ray was also the son of a coal miner and last I heard, he was serving on the USS Hawaii, a nuclear submarine. I guess he learned from his dad that when youre working, sunlight and fresh air are overrated. I wonder what my mom and dad would have thought about my life these days. After all, I havent worked in more than two years. Im pretty sure my dad would have been appalled; he was the kind of father who would sit me down for a lecture if I received an A? on an exam and was disappointed when I chose the Naval Academy over Georgetown, his alma mater, or Yale, where hed received his law degree. He woke at five in the morning every day of the week, read both the Washington Post and the New York Times while having his coffee, then would head to DC, where he worked as a lobbyist for whatever company or industry group had hired him. A sharp mind and an aggressive negotiator, he lived to make a deal and could quote large sections of the tax code from memory. He was one of six partners who oversaw more than two hundred attorneys, and his walls were decorated with photographs of him with three different presidents, half a dozen senators, and too many congressmen to count. My dad didnt simply work; his hobby was work. He spent seventy hours a week at the office and golfed with clients and politicians on the weekends. Once a month, he hosted a cocktail party at our home, with still more clients and politicians. In the evenings, he often secluded himself in his office, where there was always a pressing phone call to make, a brief to be written, a plan to be made. The idea of him kicking back on the porch and having a beer in the middle of the afternoon on a workday would have struck him as absurd, something a slacker might do, but never a Benson. There was nothing worse than being a slacker, in my fathers eyes. Though he wasnt the nurturing type, he wasnt a bad father. To be fair, my mother wasnt exactly a cookie-baking, hands-on PTA member, either. A neurosurgeon trained at Johns Hopkins, she was frequently on call and was a good match for my father in her drive and passion for work. My grandfather always said she came out of the wrapper that way, belying her small-town background and the fact that neither of her parents went to college. But I never doubted her or my fathers love for me, even if we ate takeout for dinner every night and I attended more cocktail parties as a teenager than family camping trips. In any case, my family was hardly unusual for Alexandria. Everyone at my elite private school had high-powered and prosperous parents, and the culture of excellence and career success filtered down to their children. Stellar grades were the norm, but even that wasnt enough. Kids were also expected to excel at sports or music or both and be popular to boot. Ill admit I got sucked into all of it; by the time I was in high school, I felt the need to bejust like them. I dated popular girls, finished second in my class, made all-state soccer in my junior and senior years, and was proficient on the piano. At the Naval Academy, I started on the soccer team all four years, double majored in chemistry and mathematics, and did well enough on my MCATs to be accepted to Johns Hopkins for medical school, making my mother proud. Sadly, my parents werent around to watch me receive my diploma. The accident was something I dont like to think about, nor do I like to tell others what happened. Most people dont know what to say, conversation falters, and Im usually left feeling even worse than had I said nothing about them at all. Then again, I sometimes wondered whether I just hadnt told the story to the right person, or if that person was even out there. Someone should be able to empathize, right? What I can say, however, is that Ive come to accept that life never turns out quite like one expects. Chapter 2 I know what you might be thinking: How can a guy who considered himself a mental and emotional basket case for the last two and a half years even think about becoming a psychiatrist? How can I help anyone if Ive barely figured out my own life? Good questions. As for the answershell, I didnt know. Maybe Id never be able to help anyone. What I did know was that my options were somewhat limited. Anything surgical was outwhat with the partial blindness and missing fingers and alland I wasnt interested in either family practice or internal medicine. Id be lying if I said I didnt miss surgery, though. I missed the raw way my hands felt after scrubbing, and the sound of the gloves snapping in place; I loved repairing bones and ligaments and tendons and feeling like I always knew exactly what I was doing. There was a kid in Kandahar about twelve years old whod shattered his kneecap falling off a roof a couple of years earlier, and the local physicians had botched the operation so badly that he could barely walk. I had to rebuild the knee from scratch and six months later, when he returned for a checkup, he jogged toward me. I liked the way it made me feelthat Id fixed him, allowing him to lead a normal lifeand wondered whether psychiatry would ever give me that same satisfaction. Because who is ever really fixed when it comes to mental or emotional health? Life takes radical twists and turns, and hopes and dreams shift as people enter different phases of their lives. Yesterday, via Skypewe speak every MondayDr. Bowen reminded me that were all continual works in progress. I was musing about all of this as I stood over my grill later in the evening with the radio playing in the background. The sun was going down, illuminating a kaleidoscope sky as I flipped the NY strip Id picked up from the Village Butcher on the far side of town. In the kitchen, I had a salad and baked potato ready to go, but if youre thinking Im some kind of chef, Im not. I have a simple palate and Im decent with the grill, but thats about it. Since moving to New Bern, Id been shoving charcoal into my grandfathers old Weber three or four times a week and setting the coals ablaze. It made me nostalgic for all those summers of my childhood, when my grandfather and I grilled our suppers almost every night. When the steak was ready, I added it to my plate and sat at the table on the back porch. It was dark by then, the house lights glowing from within, and moonlight reflected off the still waters of Brices Creek. The steak was perfect, but my baked potato was a bit cold. I would have popped it in the microwave, except for the fact that the kitchen didnt have a microwave. Though Id made the house livable, I hadnt yet decided on whether to renovate the kitchen, or put on a new roof, or seal the windows, or even fix the slant in the kitchen floor. If I decided to sell the place, I suspected that whoever bought it would tear down the old house, so they could put a custom home on the property. You didnt need to be a real estate whiz to figure out that any value to the property was in the land, not the structure. After finishing my dinner, I brought the plate inside and set it in the sink. Opening a beer, I returned to the porch to do some reading. I had a stack of psychiatric books and textbooks I wanted to finish perusing before I moved to Baltimore, on subjects ranging from psychopharmaceuticals to the value and drawbacks associated with hypnosis. The more Id been reading, the more I felt I had to learn. I had to admit my study skills were rusty; I sometimes felt like I was an old dog and these were new tricks. When Id said as much to Dr. Bowen, hed essentially told me to quit whining. Or thats how I took it, anyway. Id settled into the rocking chair, turned on the lamp, and had just started reading when I thought I heard a voice calling out from around the corner of the house. I turned down the radio, waited a beat, and heard the sound again. Hello? Rising from my seat, I grabbed my beer and moved to the porch railing. Peeking into the darkness, I called back. Is someone there? A moment later, a woman in uniform stepped into the light. Specifically, the uniform of a deputy sheriff. The sight caught me off guard. My experience with law enforcement to that point in my life was limited to highway patrolmen, two of whom had pulled me over for speeding in my younger years. Though Id been apologetic and polite, each of them nonetheless gave me a ticket, and dealing with law enforcement ever since made me nervous. Even if I hadnt done anything wrong. I didnt say anything; I was too busy trying to figure out why a deputy sheriff was paying me a visit, while the other part of my brain was processing the fact that the uniformed officer was female. Call me a sexist, but I hadnt interacted with many women in law enforcement, especially down here. Im sorry for coming around the side of the house, she finally said. I knocked, but I guess you didnt hear me. Her demeanor was friendly but professional. Im with the sheriffs department. Can I help you? Her eyes flickered to the grill, then back to me. I hope Im not interrupting your dinner. Not at all. I shook my head. I just finished. Oh, good. And again, I apologize for intruding, Mr. Benson, I said. Trevor Benson. I just came by to ask whether youre a legal resident of this property. I nodded, though I was a little surprised by the phrasing. I guess so. It used to be my grandfathers, but he passed away and left it to me. You mean Carl? You knew him? A little. And Im sorry for your loss. He was a good man. Yes, he was. Im sorry, but I didnt catch your name. Masterson, she said. Natalie Masterson. She was quiet then, and I had a sense that she was studying me. You said Carl was your grandfather? On my mothers side. I think he mentioned you. Youre a surgeon, right? With the Navy? I was, but not anymore. I hesitated. Im sorryIm still not exactly sure why youve come by. Oh. She motioned toward the house. I was finishing up my shift but I was out this way, and when I saw the lights on, I thought Id check it out. Am I not allowed to turn on lights? No, its not that. She smiled. Obviously, everything is okay and I shouldnt have bothered you. Its just that a few months ago, after your grandfather had died, there were reports of lights in the windows. I knew the house was supposed to be empty, so I swung by to check it out. And though I couldnt be certain, I had the impression that someone had been staying here. Not that there was any damage except for the back door, but combined with the lights being seen in the windows, I felt that I should keep an eye on the place. So Ive made it a point to swing by every now and then, just to make sure theres no one here that shouldnt be. Vagrants or squatters, teens using the place to party, tweakers working a meth lab. Whatever. Is there a lot of that around here? No more than other places, I guess. But enough to keep us busy. Just so you know, I dont do drugs. She motioned toward the bottle I was holding. Alcohol is a drug. Even beer? When she smiled, I guessed she was a few years younger than me, with blond hair tacked up into a messy bun, and her eyes were so aqua colored that they could have been bottled and sold as mouthwash. That she was attractive went without saying, and better yet, she wasnt wearing a wedding ring. No comment, she finally offered. Would you like to come in and check out the house? No, thats all right. Im just glad I dont have to worry anymore. I was fond of Carl. Whenever he was selling honey at the farmers market, wed visit for a while. I remembered sitting with my grandfather at a roadside stand every Saturday during my visits, but I had no recollection of a farmers market. Then again, New Bern had a lot more of everything now than it had in the pastrestaurants, stores, businesseseven if it still remained a small town at heart. Alexandria, which was just a suburb in the DC area and one of many, had five or six times the population. Even there, I suspect Natalie Masterson would have turned heads. What can you tell me about the possible squatter? I asked. I didnt really care about the squatter, but somehow I was reluctant to see her go. Not much more than I already told you, she said. Do you think you might come up here? I pleaded, pointing to my ear. So I can hear you better? I was caught up in a mortar attack in Afghanistan. I could hear her fine, by the way; the inner workings of my ear werent damaged in the blast, even if the outer part had been torn from my head. Its just that Im not above playing the sympathy card when I need to. I retreated to my rocker, hoping she hadnt wondered why I seemed to be able to hear her without trouble only moments before. In the porch light, I saw her eyeing my scar before she finally started up the steps. When she reached the other rocker, she angled it toward me, while also sliding it back. I appreciate this, I said. She smiled, not overly warm, but enough for me to realize she did indeed have suspicions about my hearing and was still debating whether to stay. It was also a wide enough smile to notice her white and perfectly straight teeth. As I was saying Are you comfortable? I asked. Can I offer you something to drink? Im fine, thank you. Im on duty, Mr. Benson. Call me Trevor. And pleasestart at the beginning. She sighed, and I could have sworn I saw the trace of an eye roll. There was a series of electrical storms last November, after Carl passed away. A lot of lightning, and at the trailer park down the road, one of the trailers caught fire. The fire department responded, so did I, and not long after the fire was out, one of the guys mentioned that he likes to go hunting on the far side of the creek. It was just small talk, you know? I nodded, remembering the burned-out husk Id noticed my first week here. Anyway, I happened to bump into him a couple of weeks later, and he mentioned that hed noticed lights in your grandfathers house, not just once, but two or three times. Like a candle being carried past the windows. He was kind of far away and I wondered if it had been his imagination, but since it kept happening and he knew that Carl had died, he thought he should mention it. When would this have been? Last December, maybe midmonth? There was a week or two there when it was really cold, so it wouldnt have surprised me if someone broke in just to stay warm. The next time I was in the area I stopped by and saw that the back door was broken and the knob had almost fallen off. I went inside and did a quick search, but the place was empty. Aside from the broken door, I didnt find evidence that anyone had been inside. There was no trash, and the beds were made; as far as I could tell, nothing appeared to be missing. But She paused, frowning at the recollection. I took a sip of beer, waiting for her to go on. There were a pair of used candles on the counter with blackened wicks, and a half-empty box of candles as well. I also noticed that some of the dust had been wiped away at the kitchen table, like someone had eaten there. It also seemed like someone had been using one of the recliners in the family room because there was cleared space on the neighboring side table and it was the only piece of furniture in the living room that wasnt dusty. It wasnt anything I could prove, but just in case, I found some extra boards in the barn and sealed the back door. Thanks for that, I said. Though she nodded, I could tell something about those memories was still bothering her. She went on. Did you happen to notice whether anything was missing when you moved in? I thought about it before shaking my head. Not that I could tell. Except for the funeral in October, I hadnt been down here in a few years. And that week is a bit hazy in my memory. Was the back door intact then? I went in through the front, but Im sure I checked all the locks when I left. I think I would have noticed if the back door was damaged. I know I spent time on the back porch. When did you move in? End of February. She digested that, her eyes flashing to the back door. You believe someone did break in, dont you? I finally asked. I dont know, she admitted. Usually, when something like that occurs, things are broken and theres trash strewn about. Bottles, food wrappers, detritus. And vagrants dont usually make the bed before they leave. She thrummed her fingers on the rocker. Are you sure nothing was missing? Guns? Electronics? Did your grandfather keep cash around? My grandfather didnt have much in the way of electronics or cash, as far as I know. And his gun was in the closet when I moved in. Its still there, by the way. Its a small shotgun to keep the varmints away. That makes it even stranger because usually, guns are the first things stolen. What do you make of it? I dont know, she said. Either no one was there or you were visited by the tidiest and most honest vagrant in history. Should I be worried? Have you seen or heard anyone creeping around the property since youve moved in? No. And Im frequently awake during the night. Insomnia? Some. But its getting better. Good, she said, adding nothing more. She smoothed the pants of her uniform. But Ive taken enough of your time. Thats all I can really tell you. I appreciate you swinging by and telling me about all this. And for fixing the door. It wasnt much of a fix. It did the job, I said. It was still boarded up when I got here. How much longer is your shift? She glanced at her watch. Actually, believe it or not, its over now. Then are you sure I cant get you a drink? I dont think that would be a good idea. I still have to drive home. Fair enough, I said, but before you goand since youre off, and Im new in towntell me what I need to know about New Bern these days. I havent been here in a while. She paused, arching an eyebrow. Why would I do that? Arent you supposed to protect and serve? Think of this as the serve part. Like fixing my door. I tried out my most winning smile. I dont think that being a welcoming committee is part of my job description, she deadpanned. Maybe not, I thought, but you havent left yet. All right, I said. Tell me what made you want to become a sheriff. With my question, she looked at me. Maybe, truly, for the first time, and again I found myself transfixed by the color of her eyes. They were like the waters of the Caribbean in an upscale travel magazine. Im not the sheriff. Thats an elected position. Im a deputy. Are you avoiding my question? Im wondering why you want to know. Im a curious person. And since you helped me out, I feel like I should know at least a little about the person who did the helping. Why do I get the impression you have an ulterior motive? Because youre not only pretty, youre obviously smart as well, I thought. I shrugged, feigning innocence. She studied me before finally responding. Why dont you tell me about yourself first. Fair enough. Ask away. Im guessing that the mortar round is the reason youre no longer in the Navy or a doctor? Yes, I said. I was hit by a mortar just as I was leaving the hospital where I worked. Lucky shot. Or, for me, unlucky. Fairly serious injuries. In the end, the Navy put me on disability and let me go. Tough break. It was, I admitted. And youre in New Bern because? Its only a temporary stay, I said. Im moving to Baltimore this summer. Im starting a new residency in psychiatry. Really? she asked. Is there something wrong with psychiatry? Not at all. Its just not what I expected you to say. I can be a good listener. Its not that, she said. Im sure you are. But why psychiatry? I want to work with veterans with PTSD, I said. I think theres a need for it these days, especially with soldiers and marines doing four or five rotations. As I mentioned, it can stay with a person after theyre back. She seemed to be attempting to read me. Is that what happened with you? Yes. She hesitated and I had the sense she continued to really see me. Was it bad? No question, I said. Terrible. And it still is, every now and then. But thats probably a story for another time. Fair enough, she offered. But now that I know, Ill admit that I was wrong. It sounds like its exactly what you should do. How long is a psychiatric residency? Five years. Ive heard residencies are hard. Its no worse than being dragged by a car down the highway. For the first time, she laughed. Im sure youll do fine. But I do hope you find some time to enjoy our town while youre here. Its a beautiful place to live, and there are a lot of good people here. Did you grow up in New Bern? No, she answered. I grew up in a small town. Thats funny. But true, she said. Can I ask what you intend to do with the place? When you leave? Why? Are you interested in buying? No, she said. And I doubt I could afford it. She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. Where are you from, by the way? Give me a quick sketch of who you are. Pleased that she was interested, I gave her a brief history: my youth in Alexandria, my parents, my regular summertime visits to New Bern when I was younger. High school, college, medical school and residency. My time with the Navy. All with a touch of the modest hyperbole men use when trying to impress an attractive woman. As she listened, her eyebrows twitched more than once, but I couldnt tell whether she was fascinated or amused. So youre a city boy. I beg to differ, I protested. Im from the suburbs. Her lips turned up slightly at the corners, but I couldnt read the intent behind it. What I dont understand is why you went to the Naval Academy. If you were such a brilliant student, I mean, and were accepted at Yale and Georgetown? Brilliant? Did I actually use that word earlier? I wanted to prove to myself that I could make it without my parents help. Financially, I mean. But didnt you say they were rich? Oh, yeah. I vaguely remember saying that, too. Well-to-do, I should have said. So it was a pride thing? And service to our country. She nodded slightly, her eyes never leaving mine. Good. Almost as an afterthought, she added, There are a lot of active duty military in the area, as you probably know. Cherry Point, Camp Lejeunemany of them have spent time in Afghanistan and Iraq. I nodded. When I was posted overseas, I worked with doctors and nurses from every region of the country, in all sorts of specialties, and I learned a ton from them. While it lasted, anyway. And we did a lot of good, too. Most of our work was with localsmany of them had never been seen by a doctor before the hospital opened. She seemed to consider my words. A chorus of crickets sounded in the silence before I heard her voice again. I dont know that I could have done what you did. I tilted my head. Im not sure what you mean. Experiencing the horrors of war every single day. And knowing there are some people who are beyond your power to help. I dont think I would be able to handle something like that. Not in the long run, anyway. As she spoke, I had the impression she was sharing something personal, though Id heard the same thing from others before, in regard to both the military and medicine in general. Im sure youve seen some terrible things as a deputy. I have. And yet you still do it. Yes, she said. And sometimes I wonder how long Ill be able to continue. There are times when I fantasize about opening a flower shop or something like that. Why dont you? Who knows? Maybe one day I will. Again, she grew quiet. Sensing her distraction, I broke her reverie with a lighthearted prompt. Since you wont give me a rundown of whats new in town, at least tell me what your favorite place is? OhI dont go out that much, she demurred. Except for the farmers market downtown. Its open Saturday mornings. But if youre trying to find some excellent honey, youll probably be out of luck. Im sure my grandfather still has plenty. You dont know for sure? There are a few jars in the cupboard, but I havent checked the honey shed yet. Ive been too busy fixing up the place. I mean, a palace like this doesnt just happen by accident. This time she smiled, if a tad reluctantly. She nodded toward the dock. Have you gone out in the boat yet? I havent yet mentioned the boat, but suffice it to say that it was a lot like the house, only in worse condition. Even calling it a boat was somewhat generous, because it looked less like a boat than an outhouse and two vinyl recliners, all bolted to a floating platform. My grandfather built it using discarded oil drums and lumber of varying sizesalong with whatever else he could findand when he wasnt checking on the bees, he was always tinkering with it. Not yet. Im not sure the engine even works. I know it was working last summer, because Carl told me. Its kind of a hard boat to miss and your grandfather loved to take it out. People take photos of it whenever they see it. It is a bit eccentric, isnt it? It suited him, though. Yes, I admitted. It did. She sighed and stood. I really should be going. Ive got some things to do at home. It was a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Benson. Mr. Benson? I had hoped wed moved beyond that, but I guess not. She started down the steps, reaching the bottom in the same instant my brain finally kicked back into gear. You dont have to walk around the back and side of the house. You can go through to the front door if its easier. Thank you, but Ill just retrace my steps. Have a good evening. You too. And it was nice meeting you, Natalie. She raised an eyebrow before turning away; with a couple of quick steps, she vanished from sight. After a few beats, I heard a door slam in the driveway and her vehicle start up. All of which left me contemplating the intriguing Natalie Masterson. That she was beautiful, anyone would notice, but what I found interesting about her was how little shed told me about herself. Its been said that women are the mysterious sex, and even now, my first inclination is to laugh when a guy Im talking to says he understands what makes women tick. I was flummoxed by the one-sided nature of the conversation. Id told her a lot about myself but had learned almost nothing about her. I did, however, have a hunch that I would see her again, if only because I knew just where I might find her. Chapter 3 In the morning I went for a run, something I hadnt been consistent about since arriving in town. I would tell myself that I had more important things to dolike spreading mothballs to keep snakes awaybut the simple truth is that I dont always enjoy exercising. I know all the benefitsIm a doctor, remember?but unless I was chasing or dribbling a soccer ball, running always seemed kind of silly to me. But I did it. Six miles at a steady pace; when I finished, I did a hundred push-ups and sit-ups. After a quick shower and a bite to eat, I was ready to face the day. Of course, since I technically had no real responsibilities, I decided on another quick survey of the house to check if anything was missing. Which was something of an impossible task, since I hadnt known what had been in the house when hed left town, and Id already cleaned out the place. In the closet, I spotted the shotgun again and found the shells; there was no other ammunition, which led me to believe thered been no other weapons. In a box under the bed in the guest room, however, I discovered a wad of cash wrapped in a rubber band, beneath a thick envelope that held various documents and photographs of my grandmotherssocial security card, medical records concerning her epilepsy, things like that. It wasnt a lot of moneyenough for a couple of fancy dinners maybebut definitely enough to entice someone who might want money for drugs or booze. Had someone been there, it would have been stolen, right? Which meant that the place had likely remained unoccupied. And yet the door had been broken I shook my head. Either way, even if someone had been there, they were long gone by now, so I put it out of my mind and decided to hit the books on the back porch for a while. Unfortunately they werent exactly page-turners, and after a couple of hours, Id had enough. On the plus side, no snakes appeared, which made me wonder whether Callie had known what she was talking about. Ill admit that my mind wandered at times toward the lovely Natalie Masterson. She was an enigma, and I kept picturing the amused flicker I saw in her eyes as I related my slightly embellished history. But thinking about my conversation with Natalie also reminded me of the bees and the boat, which turned my thoughts to my grandfather, and it brought to mind my last visit here. At the time, Id been a resident and while others were heading off to the Caribbean or Cancun for well-deserved respites, I made the drive from Baltimore to New Bern, seeking the comfort and abiding love that I had always sought from him as a child. He was his own cup of teathe boat was a good example of his quirkinessbut he had limitless room in his heart for unsheltered souls. He was the kind of guy whod feed whatever strays happened to drift onto his property; hed set out a line of bowls near the barn, and various dogs from God knows where would begin showing up. He named the ones that stuck around after carsAs a kid, I played fetch with dogs named Cadillac, Edsel, or Ford, Chevy and Pinto. Oddly, he also named one Winnebagoit was a tiny thing, some sort of terrierand when I asked him why, he winked and declared, Look at the size of him! In his working life, hed been employed at the mill, turning logs into usable lumber. Like me, he finished his life with fewer fingers than when he started; unlike me, it didnt cause his career to come crashing to an end. He used to tell me that unless a man has lost a finger on the job, it wasnt a real job, which makes the idea that he raised my mothera sophisticated, ambitious, cerebral woman if there ever was onerather astounding. When I was younger, I used to suspect my mother had been adopted, but as I matured I eventually came to recognize that they shared an innate optimism and decency that informed everything they did. My grandfather hadnt had an easy time after my grandmother had died. I dont remember her at all, as I was still toddling around in diapers the only time we met. But I can recall my mom emphasizing that it was important to visit him, so that he wasnt always alone. For my grandfather, there was only one woman; hed loved once and for all, right up until an epileptic seizure took her life. Theres still a photograph of her on the wall of the bedroom, and after moving in, I couldnt imagine taking it down, even though I never knew her. That she was my grandfathers North Star was more than enough reason to keep it hanging exactly where it was But it was odd being at the house. It felt empty without my grandfather and wandering into the barn deepened the feeling of loss. It had the same cluttered atmosphere as the house Id inherited. Inside were not only mothballs and a wide assortment of tools, but an old tractor, numerous engine parts, bags of sand, pickaxes, shovels, a rusting bicycle, an Army helmet, a cot and blanket that looked as though someone had actually slept there, and countless remnants of a lifetime of collecting things. I sometimes wondered whether my grandfather had ever thrown anything away, but close inspection revealed no trash, ancient magazines, newspapers, or debris that belonged in a garbage can; there were only items that he felt he might one day need for whatever project he was working on. On the night I received the call from the hospital, I wasnt doing much of anything. There was no reason I couldnt have visited him that week, or a month or even a year earlier. Or even, I knew, when Id been at my very worst. Hed never been a man to judge, and even less likely when it came to the effects of war on a person. At twenty hed been shipped to North Africa; in the years that followed hed fought in Italy, France, and then Germany. Hed been wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, only to return to his unit not long after the Army crossed the Rhine. I knew nothing about any of it from him, since he never spoke about the war. My mom mentioned it, though, and a few days after my arrival here, I discovered the records, along with his Purple Heart and various service medals. According to my mom, he got interested in bees not long after he built the house. Back then, thered been a farm up the road and my grandfather had worked there, before getting a job at the mill. The farmer had beehives but didnt like tending to them. My grandfather was put on the task. Since he knew nothing about beekeeping, he checked out a book from the library and eventually learned the rest on his own. To him, they represented an almost perfect species, and hed hold forth on the subject to anyone who would listen. Im sure he would have told the doctors and nurses at the hospital in Easley about them if hed had the chance. But he didnt. As soon as I got the call, I booked a flight to Greenville, South Carolina, via Charlotte. There, I rented a car and sped down the highway; despite all that, I arrived nearly eighteen hours after Id heard what happened. By then, hed been in the ICU for more than three days. It had taken that long to learn my name; the stroke first left him unconscious, and then largely unable to speak. The entire right side of his body was paralyzed, the left side only slightly better. As soon as I entered the ICU, I took note of the readings on the various monitors and after scanning the chart, I knew he didnt have much longer to live. The bed seemed to dwarf him. I know its a clich?that this is something that practically everyone saysbut in his case, it was true. Hed lost a lot of weight since Id seen him last, and the slack, lopsided expression on his face, even as he slept, nearly broke my heart. I took a seat near the bed and reached for his hand; it felt bony and brittle, birdlike, and I felt my throat lock up. All at once, I hated myself for not getting there sooner; I hated myself for staying away for so long. For a long time, the only movement I saw was the labored rise and fall of his chest. I talked to him, even though I wasnt sure if he heard me. Quite a bit, if I remember correctlymaking up for all the intervening years when Id been too wrapped up in my own struggles to visit him. I told him about the explosion in Kandahar, and the trauma I experienced in the aftermath. I told him about Sandramy most recent girlfriendand our breakup. I told him that I was planning to begin another residency. And I thanked him, once again, for simply being thereas my real family, even if Id taken him for granted at timesboth before and after the death of my parents. One of the nurses informed me that since his arrival, the only words hed spoken were my name and Pensacola, which was how they were finally able to track me down. They told me that hed been able to open his eyes and had tried to speak on occasion, only to rasp out unintelligible sounds. Still other times, hed stared at them in bewilderment, as though he hadnt known where or even who he was. I was upset and worried, but also confused. Why was he here, in Easley, South Carolina? How had he gotten here? In all the time Id known him, hed never traveled as far west as Raleigh, and hed come to Alexandria only once. After the war, and until just a few days earlier, I was fairly certain he hadnt left the county in years. But Easley was a long way from New Bern. Six or seven hours on the interstate, maybe more, depending on traffic. At the time, my grandfather was ninety-one years old; where had he been going? I would have suspected Alzheimers, except for the fact that in his letters, hed seemed as lucid and thoughtful as ever. Hed always been good at thatwriting letters to meand while I answered a few of them, I usually ended up phoning him after receiving one of his missives. It was easier for me, and I can be lazy about some things, like putting pen to paper; Im not proud of it, but thats who I am. On the phone he was as clearheaded as ever. Older, of course, and maybe taking a bit longer to find the word he wanted, but certainly nothing that would indicate dementia severe enough to prompt a journey to a place hed never mentioned before. But staring at him as he lay unconscious made me wonder whether I was wrong about all of it. In the late-afternoon light, his skin took on a grayish pallor; by the evening, his breathing sounded painful. Though visiting hours were over, the staff at the hospital didnt kick me out. Im not sure whyperhaps because I was a physician, or because they could tell how much I cared for him. As nightfall came and went, I continued to sit with him, holding his hand and talking to him the entire time. By morning, I was exhausted. One of the nurses brought me coffee, reminding me despite my exhaustion that there are good people everywhere. My grandfathers physician came by on his rounds; I could tell by his expression after checking my grandfather that he was thinking the same thing I was: The kind, old man was entering the final stages of his life. Maybe hours left, maybe a day, but not much more than that. It was around noon on that last day that my grandfather shifted slightly in his bed, his eyes fluttering halfway open. As he attempted to focus, I noticed the same confusion the nurses had described, and I leaned closer to his bed, squeezing his hand. Hey, Grandpa, Im here. Can you hear me? He turned his head, only a little, but as much as he could. Its me, Trevor. Youre in the hospital. He blinked slowly. Trevor. Yeah, Grandpa, its me. I came as soon as I heard. Where were you going? I felt him squeeze my hand. Helpcareand Of course, I said. Theyre taking good care of you. Ifyoucan Each word croaked out between ragged breaths. Collapsed Yes, Grandpa. You had a stroke. As I said it, I wondered if hed been more ill than I suspected; in that same instant, I recalled that his wife had had epilepsy. Sick. Youll be okay, I lied. And well go take care of the bees and take the boat out, okay? Just you and me. Itll be like old times. LikeRose I squeezed his hand again, hating his confusion, hating that he didnt know what had happened to him. Your beautiful bride. Findfamily I didnt have the heart to remind him that his wife and daughter had long since passed away, that I was the only family he had left. Youll see Rose soon, I promised. I know how much she loved you. And how much you loved her. Shell be waiting for you. Gotohell I froze, wondering if Id heard him right. If he was attempting some kind of joke, it was one that would be out of character for him. Its okay, Im here, I repeated. Andrunaway. Im not leaving you, I said. Im staying right here. I love you, I said, bringing his wizened hand to my face. His expression softened. Loveyou I could feel the wellspring of tears beginning to form and tried to keep them at bay. Youre the best man Ive ever known. Youcame Of course I came. Now go No, I said. Im going to stay right here. For as long as it takes, Im staying with you. Please, he whispered, and then his eyes closed. That was the last thing he said to me. Less than two hours later, he took his final breath. * * * On the night he died, as I lay awake in a nearby hotel, I relived those last moments with my grandfather. I puzzled over the things hed said, finally sitting up in bed to write them down on the notepad next to the phone, combining some of the words into phrases that I thought made the most sense. Trevorhelp careandif you cancollapsedsicklike Rosefind familygo to helland run awaylove youyou camenow goplease Thered been a bit of rambling, some disassociation, but at least hed recognized me. Hed told me that he loved me, and for that I was grateful. Id told him that I wouldnt leave, and I was glad I hadnt. The thought that he might have died alone was nearly enough to break my heart. After Id finished the note, I folded the paper and stuck it in my wallet, continuing to ponder it. Of all that hed said, telling me to go to hell was the one thing I couldnt quite understand. Although Id assured him hed see Rose again soon, my grandfather had never been particularly religious. I wasnt sure what he believed with regard to the afterlife, but I was glad Id said it. Whether he believed it or not, it was what I think he wanted to hear. * * * Rising from my seat on the porch, I descended the steps, heading for the dock. Like the boat, the dock wasnt much, yet somehow it had survived countless hurricanes since it was built. As I approached, I caught sight of the dry rot and stepped cautiously onto the ancient boards, wary that I might crash through to the water any second. But the boards held, and I eventually hopped onto the boat. It was a boat that no one but my grandfather could have built. The outhouse portion, which my grandfather called the cockpit, was located near the bow and had three walls, a crooked window, and an old wooden wheel hed likely found at a thrift shop somewhere. Because he hadnt known much about boat design, the act of getting anywhere on the boat was more art than science. The wheel and rudder were connected, but only loosely; turning left or right usually required three or four rotations of the wheel, and how he was able to get it officially registered as legal watercraft was beyond me. Behind the cockpit were the two vinyl rockers, a small table hed bolted to the deck, as well as a pair of secured metal stools. A railing made of two-by-fours prevented passengers from falling off, and the stern was decorated with a set of Texas longhorns mounted on a galvanized pole that he claimed a friend from the war had sent him. The engine was as ancient as the rest of the boat; to start it, you pulled a cord, much like a lawn mower. When I was a kid, my grandfather had let me give it a try, and after numerous failed attempts, I could barely move my arm. With my good hand, I gave the cord a couple of sharp jerks now, and when the engine didnt catch, I guessed the problem was something as simple as spark plugs. My grandfather was a whiz at anything mechanical and I had no doubt hed been able to keep the engine in good condition right up until hed made the trip to Easley. Which made me wonder again why hed been there. * * * After ransacking the barn to find a wrench, I removed the spark plugs and got in my SUV. Ill admit my vehicle isnt good for the environment, but because its stylish, I like to think that it adds beauty to the world, which makes up for it. I drove a mile down the road to Slow Jims Trading Post, finding that the place hadnt changed a bit. Inside, I asked the cashier where I might find spark plugs, and sure enough, the store had the exact ones I needed. My stomach gurgled as I paid for them, reminding me that I hadnt eaten since breakfast. Overcome with nostalgia, I wandered toward the grill. The six small tables were takenthe place had always drawn a crowdbut there were a few empty stools at the counter and I took a seat. Above the grill was a chalkboard highlighting the menu. There were more choices than I anticipated, though few were remotely healthy. But Id run that morning, so what the heck? I ordered a cheeseburger and fries from Claude, a man I recognized from previous visits. Despite the apron he was wearing, he looked more like a banker than a cook, with dark hair turning silver at the temples and blue eyes that matched the polo shirt he was wearing beneath his apron. His father had originally founded the storeprobably around the time my grandfather built his housebut Claude had been running the place for more than a decade. I also ordered an iced tea, which was as sweet as I remembered. The South is famous for sweet tea, and I savored every drop. Claude then slid a bowl of small, brown soggy things toward me. Whats this? Boiled peanuts. It comes with every order, Claude explained. I started that a couple of years ago. Its my wifes recipe, and theres a pot going near the register. You can buy some before you go. Most people do. I cautiously tried one, surprised by its salty goodness. Claude turned away and dumped some frozen fries from a bag into hot oil, before slapping a burger on the grill. Off to the side, Callie was stocking some shelves, but if shed noticed me, she hadnt let on. Dont I know you? Claude asked. I think I recognize you. I havent been here in years, but I used to come all the time with my grandfather, Carl Haverson. Oh, thats right, he said, brightening. Youre the Navy doctor, right? Not anymore. But thats a story for another time. Im Claude, he said. I remember, I said. Im Trevor. Wow, he said. A Navy doctor. Claude whistled. Your pappy sure was proud of you. I was proud of him, too. Im sorry for your loss. I sure did like him. I shelled another peanut. Me too. Do you live around here now? Im staying at his place until June or so. Great property, Claude said. Your pappy planted some fantastic trees. Really pretty this time of year. My wife has been making me slow the car whenever we pass by. Lots of flowers. Are the beehives still there? Of course. I nodded. Theyre doing well. Your pappy used to let me buy and sell some of his honey every year. Folks love it. If theres any left from either of last years harvests, Id be happy to take it off your hands. How many jars would you want? All of them, he chortled. That good? Best in the state, or so they say. Theres a ranking? I dont know. But thats what I tell people when they ask. And they keep buying it. I smiled. Why are you at the grill? If I remember right, arent you usually working the register? Almost always. Its cooler and a whole lot easier, and Im not covered in grease by the end of the day. But Frank is my regular grill man and hes out this week. His daughter is getting married. Good reason to miss work. Not so good for me. Im out of practice on the grill. Ill do my best to make sure your burger isnt burned. Id appreciate that. He eyed the sizzling grill over his shoulder. Carl used to come here two or three times a week, you know. Always ordered a BLT on white toast, with French fries, and a pickle on the side. I remembered ordering the same thing when I was with him. For some reason, BLTs never tasted quite as good anywhere else. Im sure he loved the peanuts, too. These are great. Nope, Claude declared. Allergic. To peanuts? I squinted in disbelief. So he always told me. Said his throat would swell like a balloon. The things you dont know about a man, I mused before recalling that Claudes father, Jim, and my grandfather had always been close. Hows your dad doing? I suspected that Jim had gone the way of my grandfather, as they were close in age, but Claude only shrugged. Same as always, I guess. He still likes to come by the store a couple times a week and sit in the rockers out front while he has lunch. Yeah? As a matter of fact, your grandfather used to join him when he came by, Claude said. They were a regular pair. I guess Jerrold has sort of taken your grandfathers place since your grandpa passed. Have you met Jerrold? No. He used to drive a truck for Pepsi. His wife passed on a few years back. Nice guy, but hes an odd duck. And frankly, Im not sure what either of them gets out of it. My pas deaf as a doornail and definitely slipping mentally. Makes it tough to have a conversation. He must be almost ninety now. Ninety-one. My guess is hell live to a hundred and ten. Other than his hearing, hes healthier than I am. Claude turned around and flipped the burger, then dropped the bun in a toaster. When the bun was ready, he added lettuce, tomato, and onion before facing me again. Can I ask you a question? he said. Shoot. What was Carl doing in South Carolina? I have no idea. I still havent figured that out. I was hoping you could tell me. Claude shook his head. He talked to my dad more than he talked to me, but after he passed, there was a lot of curiosity about it. Why? He put his hands on the counter and regarded me. Well, for starters, he usually didnt go anywhere. He hasnt left town in years. And then there was that truck of hisyou remember it? I nodded. It was a Chevy C/K from the early 1960s. It might have been called a classic, except for the fact the body was a faded, rusting wreck. It was all that Carl could do to keep that thing running. He was really good with engines, but even he said the truck was on its last legs. I doubt it could top forty-five miles an hour. It was fine for getting around town, but I cant imagine Carl taking it on the interstate. Nor could I. Clearly I wasnt the only person wondering what had come over him. Claude turned back to the grill and added fries to the paper plate. He set my meal in front of me. Ketchup and mustard, right? Sure. He slid the bottles toward me. Carl liked ketchup, too. I sure do miss him. He was a good man. Yes, he was, I said absently, but my mind became fixated on the sudden certainty that Natalie had been correct when shed told me that someone had been staying in my grandfathers house. I think Ill bring this outside and eat out front. It was good talking to you, Claude. Thats why the chairs are there. Nice seeing you again. Taking my plate and drink, I walked toward the doors. After using my hip to push open the door, I made my way to the rockers and took a seat. I set my plate on the small wooden table beside me, thinking again about the possible vagrant in my house and suddenly wondering whether it was somehow connected to the other mysteries surrounding my grandfather in the last few days of his life. * * * It was as I was finishing up my lunch that I saw Callie walk out of the store, carrying what looked to be her own lunch in a brown paper bag. Hey there, Callie, I offered. She glanced in my direction, looking suspicious. Do I know you? We met the other day, I said. When you were walking by my house. You told me the mothballs wouldnt keep snakes away. They wont. I havent seen any snakes since then. Theyre still there. Surprising me, she squatted down and stretched out her arm, holding a paper plate with a glob of what looked to be tuna on it. Come on, Termite. Time for lunch. She set the plate on the ground, and a moment later, a cat popped out from behind the ice machine. Is that your cat? I asked. No. Hes the store cat. Claude lets me feed him. He lives at the store? Im not sure where he lives during the day, but Claude lets him inside at night. Hes a good mouser. Why is he named Termite? I dont know. And you dont know where he goes during the day? Callie didnt respond until Termite was eating. Then, without looking at me, she spoke again. You sure ask a lot of questions, dont you? When Im interested in something, I do. Youre interested in the cat? It reminds me of my grandfather. He used to like strays, too. Once the cat had finished, Callie picked up the plate. Termite, meanwhile, sauntered in my direction, ignored me completely as he passed, then disappeared around the corner of the store. Callie still hadnt responded. With a sigh, however, she tossed the paper plate into the garbage and, with her back turned to me as she started walking away, said something that surprised me. I know. Chapter 4 Both CBT and DBT emphasize common-sense living, or things your mother taught you, as a way to help improve mental and emotional health. While everyone can benefit from behavioral therapy, for those people like me, who suffer from PTSD, common-sense living is critical to ensuring the quality of life. In real termshow I behaved, in other wordsit meant frequent exercise, regular sleep, healthy eating, and the avoidance of mood-altering substances as ways to make things better. Therapy, Ive come to learn, is less about navel-gazing conversation than it is about learning habits for successful living, and then, most importantly, putting them into practice. Despite the cheeseburger and fries Id had for lunch earlier in the week, I generally tried to stick to those guidelines. Experience had taught me that when I was overtired, or if I hadnt exercised for a while or if I ate too much unhealthy food, I was more sensitive to various triggers, like loud noises or irritating people. I could dislike running all I wanted, but the simple truth of the matter was that I hadnt been awakened by a nightmare in over five months and my hands hadnt trembled since Id arrived in New Bern. All of which meant another workout on Saturday morning, followed by a better-than-usual cup of coffee. Afterward, I changed the boats spark plugs. Sure enough, the engine coughed to life, then began to purr. I let it idle for a while, thinking my grandfather would have been proud, especially sincecompared to himIm not an engine guy. As I waited, I remembered a joke my grandfather had told me on my last visit. A lady pulls her car into the mechanics shop because her car is running poorly. A little while later, the mechanic comes out and she asks him, Whats the story with my car? The mechanic replies, Just crap in the carburetor. Oh, she says. How often do I need to do that? My grandfather loved to tell jokes, which was yet another reason I always enjoyed my visits with him. He would tell them with a mischievous glint in his eye, usually beginning to chuckle even before he reached the punch line. In this and countless other ways, he was the opposite of my own earnest, achievement-oriented parents. I often wondered how I would have turned out without his easygoing presence in my life. After I shut down the engine, I went back to the house and cleaned up. I threw on khakis, a polo, and loafers, then made the ten-minute drive to downtown New Bern. Id always liked the downtown area, especially the historic district. There were a lot of ancient, majestic houses there, some of them dating back to the eighteenth century, which was a bit amazing since the town was prone to flooding during hurricanes, which should have wiped them all out by now. When I first began visiting, many of the historic homes were in terrible condition, but one by one theyd been bought up by investors over the years and gradually restored to their former glory. Streets were canopied by massive oak and magnolia trees, and there were a bunch of official markers testifying to important historical events: a famous duel here, an important person born there, some roots of a Supreme Court decision the next block over. Before the revolution, New Bern had been the colonial capital for the British, and after hed become president, George Washington visited the town briefly. What I liked most, however, was that compared to those in small towns in other parts of the country, the businesses in the downtown were thriving, despite the big-box stores only a few miles away. I parked the car in front of Christ Episcopal Church and climbed out into bright sunshine. Given the blue skies and warmer-than-usual temperatures, I wasnt surprised at the number of people thronging the sidewalks. I strolled past the Pepsi museumthe soft drink was invented here by Caleb Bradhamand then Bakers Kitchen, a popular breakfast spot. It was already crowded, with people waiting on the benches outside for tables. A quick internet search before I left made the farmers market easy to find, located as it was near the North Carolina History Center. Since Natalie had recommended the place and I had nothing better to do, I figured why not? A few minutes later, I reached my destination. It wasnt the bustling agricultural horn of plenty Id pictured, with overflowing bins of fruit and vegetables typical of roadside stands. Instead, the market was mainly dominated by vendors selling trinkets, baked goods, and all sorts of craft items out of garage-type stalls. Which made sense once I thought about it, considering it was only April and the summer crops had yet to come in. Still, it wasnt bereft of fresh produce, and I made a circuit of the market, getting a feel for the place and deciding what I needed for my own cupboards. As I looked, I bought a cup of apple cider and continued to wander around. In addition to food, I saw dolls made of straw, birdhouses, wind chimes made from seashells, and jars of apple butter, none of which I needed. It was getting crowded, though, and by the time I got back to my starting point I spotted Natalie Masterson hovering over a table of sweet potatoes. Even from a distance, she stood out. She was holding a basket and wearing faded jeans, a white T-shirt, and sandals, all of which did a lot more for her figure than the boring uniform had. A pair of sunglasses was propped on her head and aside from lipstick, she wore little makeup. Her hair swept the top of her shoulders in untamed glory. If I could picture Ms. Masterson earlier that morning, I thought she must have dressed, run her fingers through her hair, and applied a quick coat of lipstick before skipping out the door, the whole process taking less than five minutes. She appeared to be alone and after a moments hesitation, I started toward her, almost colliding with an older lady whod been examining a birdhouse. When I was getting close, Natalie turned in my direction. She did a quick double take, but by then, I was already by her side. Good morning, I chirped. I could feel her eyes on me, gleaming with amusement. Good morning, she responded. I dont know if you remember, but Im Trevor Benson. We met the other night. I remember, she said. What are the odds Id bump into you here? Pretty high, Id say, she remarked, since I mentioned that I come here regularly. After your recommendation, I thought Id check it out, I said. And I needed to get some things anyway. But you havent found anything to buy yet? I had cider earlier. And theres a doll made of straw Im thinking about. You dont seem like the kind of guy who collects dolls. Im hoping it will give me someone to talk to while Im having coffee in the mornings. Thats a troubling thought, she said, her eyes lingering on mine for a beat too long. I wondered if it was her way of flirting, or if she scrutinized everyone this way. Im actually here to pick up some potatoes. Feel free, she said, waving a hand at the table. Theres plenty. She turned her attention to the table, chewing on her lip as she studied the produce. Moving closer, I stole a peek at her profile, thinking that her unguarded expression revealed a surprising innocence, as though she still puzzled over why bad things happened in the world. I wondered if it had something to do with her job, or whether I was simply imagining it. Or whether, God forbid, it had something to do with me. She chose a few medium-sized potatoes, sliding them into the basket; I opted for two of the larger ones. After counting how many shed already selected, she added a few more. Thats a lot of potatoes, I observed. Im making pies. At my questioning expression, she said, Not for me. For a neighbor. You bake? I live in the South. Of course I bake. But your neighbor doesnt? Shes elderly, and her kids and grandkids are coming to visit later this week. She loves my recipe. Very nice of you, I commended her. How did the rest of your week go? She rearranged the potatoes in her basket. It was fine. Anything exciting happen? Shoot-outs, manhunts? Anything like that? No, she said. Just the usual. A handful of domestic disturbances, a couple of drivers under the influence. And transfers, of course. Transfers? Prisoner transfers. To and from court appearances. You do that? All deputies do. Is that scary? Not usually. Theyre in handcuffs, and most of them are pretty agreeable. Court is a lot more pleasant than jail. But every now and then, one of them will make me nervous, the rare psychopath, I suppose. Its like something elemental is missing in their personality and you get the feeling that right after killing you, they could wolf down a couple of tacos without a care in the world. Peering into her basket, she made a count before turning to the vendor. How much? At the vendors response, she pulled a few bills from her handbag and handed them over. I held mine up as well and fished the cash from my wallet. As I waited, a brown-eyed brunette in her thirties waved at Natalie and began to approach, all smiles. As the woman weaved through the customers, Natalie stiffened. When she was close, the woman leaned in, offering Natalie a hug. Hey, Natalie, the woman said, her voice almost solicitous. Like she knew that Natalie was struggling with something I knew nothing about. How are you? I havent seen you in a while. Im sorry, Natalie responded as the woman pulled back. Theres a lot going on. The woman nodded, her gaze flicking in my direction, then back to Natalie again, her curiosity evident. Im Trevor Benson, I offered, holding out my hand. Julie Richards, she said. My dentist, Natalie explained. She turned to Julie again. I know I need to call your office and set up an appointment Whenever, Julie said, waving her hand. You know Ill work around your schedule. Thank you, Natalie murmured. Hows Steve doing? Julie shrugged. Super busy, she said. Theyre still trying to find another doctor for the practice, so hes booked solid all week. Hes on the golf course right now, which I know he needs, but thankfully, he promised to bring the kids to a movie later so Mom can have a break, too. Natalie smiled. Cooperation and compromise. Hes a good guy, Julie said. Again, her eyes flashed momentarily to me, then back to Natalie again. SooooHow do you two know each other? Were not here together, Natalie said. I just happened to bump into him. He just moved to town and there was an issue at his house. Legal stuff. I could hear the discomfort in Natalies voice, so I held up my purchase. Im here to buy potatoes. Julie turned her attention to me. You just moved here? Where are you from? Most recently, Florida. But I grew up in Virginia. Where in Virginia? Im originally from Richmond. Alexandria, I said. How do you like it here so far? I like it. But Im still settling in. Youll get used to it. There are a lot of great people here, she said, before focusing on Natalie again. I half listened while Natalie and Julie continued with a bit of additional small talk before their conversation finally wound down. Toward the end, Julie leaned in for another hug. Im sorry, but Im going to have to scoot, Julie said. The kids are with my neighbor, and I told her that I wouldnt be gone long. It was good seeing you. You too. And remember that you can call me anytime. Ive been thinking about you. Thank you, Natalie answered. As Julie wandered off, I noted a trace of weariness in Natalies expression. Everything okay? Yeah, Natalie said. Its fine. I waited, but Natalie added nothing else. I was hoping to pick up some strawberries, she finally said in a distracted voice. Are they any good? I dont know, she said, beginning to come back to me. This is the first weekend theyre being offered, but last year, they were delicious. She moved ahead toward a table filled with strawberries, sandwiched between the table with birdhouses and the one displaying straw dolls. Farther up, I saw Julie the dentist speaking with another young couple; I figured Natalie must have noticed her as well, though she gave no indication. Instead, she sidled up to the table of strawberries. When I came to a stop beside her, Natalie suddenly stood straighter. Oh, I forgot I needed to get some broccoli, too, before its all gone. She took a step backward. It was nice chatting with you, Mr. Benson. Though she smiled, it was clear she wanted to extricate herself from my presence, the sooner the better. I could feel others eyes on us as she continued to back away. You too, deputy. She turned around, heading back the same way wed just come, leaving me alone in front of the table. The vendor, a young lady, was making change for another customer, and I wasnt quite sure what to do. Stay here? Follow her? Following her would probably come across as both irritating and creepy, so I remained at the strawberry table, thinking they resembled the ones I could find in the supermarket, except less ripe. Deciding to support the local farmers, I purchased a container and made my way back slowly through the crowds. From the corner of my eye, I saw Natalie browsing near a stall selling apple butter; there was no broccoli in her basket. I debated heading home before noting again the beauty of the morning, and decided that a cup of coffee would hit the spot. Leaving the market, I walked to the Trent River Coffee Company. It was a few blocks away, but given the pleasant weather, it felt good to be out and about. Inside, I listened to customers ahead of me order their half-decaf mocha chai lattes, or whatever it was people ordered these days. When it was my turn, I ordered a black coffee, and the young lady at the countersporting an eyebrow piercing and a tattoo of a spider on the back of her handlooked at me as though I were still living in the 1980s, the decade in which Id been born. Thats it? Justcoffee? Yes, please. Name? Johann Sebastian Bach. Is that with a Y? Yes, I answered. I watched as she wrote Yohan on the cup and handed it to the ponytailed male behind her. It was clear the name didnt ring the faintest bell. Taking my cup outside, I wandered over to Union Point, a park at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent Rivers. It was also, according to the appropriately located historical marker, the site at which a group of Swiss and Palatine settlers founded the town in 1710. The way I figured it, they were likely heading for warmer climatesSouth Beach, maybe, or Disney Worldand got lost, thus ending up here, the captain being male and unwilling to ask for directions and all. Not that it was a bad location. In fact, its beautiful, except when hurricanes come roaring in from the Atlantic. The winds stop the Neuse from flowing toward the sea, the water backs up, and the town starts pretending that its waiting for Noahs ark. My grandfather had lived through both Fran and Bertha in 1996, but when he spoke about major storms, it was always Hazel he referred to, back in 1954. During the storm, two of the beehives were upended, a catastrophic event in his life. That his roof blew off as well wasnt nearly as important to him as the damage to his pride and joy. However, Im not sure that Rose felt the same way; she went to stay with her parents until the house was habitable again. There was a large gazebo in the center of the park, as well as a lovely bricked promenade that ran along the rivers edge. I strolled toward an empty bench with a view of the river and took a seat. The sun sparkled off the lazy waters of the Neuse, which was nearly a mile wide at this point, and I watched a boat slowly glide downstream, its sails billowing like a pillow. At a nearby boat launch, I saw a group of paddleboarders getting ready to hit the water. Some were in shorts and T-shirts, others in short wet-suits, and they were clearly discussing their plan of action. At the far end of the park, a few kids were feeding ducks; another pair was playing Frisbee, and still another kid was flying a kite. I appreciated that people around here knew how to enjoy their weekends. In Kandaharand before that, while in residencyI worked practically every weekend, the days running together in an exhausted blur. But I was getting better at kicking back and relaxing on Saturdays and Sundays. Then again, I was doing pretty much the same thing every other day of the week as well, so I was getting a lot of practice. After finishing my coffee, I tossed the empty in a nearby garbage can and wandered to the railing. Leaning over, I admitted that small-town life had its charms. I especially thought so a couple of minutes later, when I saw Natalie meandering in my direction, the basket trailing at her side. She seemed to be watching the paddleboarders as they worked their way toward deeper water. I suppose I could have waved or called out, but considering our recent encounter in the farmers market, I restrained myself. Instead, I continued to study the slow-moving current until I heard a voice behind me. You again. I peeked over my shoulder. Natalies stance and expression telegraphed that she hadnt expected to find me here. Are you talking to me? What are you doing here? Im enjoying my Saturday morning. Did you know I would be coming here? How would I have known where you were going? I dont know, she said, suspicion seeping into her voice. Its a beautiful morning and a great view. Why wouldnt I come here? She opened her mouth to answer, then closed it again before speaking. I guess its none of my business, anyway. Im sorry for bothering you. Youre not bothering me, I assured her. Then, nodding toward her basket: Did you find everything you needed at the market? Why are you asking? Just making conversation. Since youre following me, I mean. Im not following you! I laughed. Kidding. If anything, I have the impression that youre trying to avoid me. Im not avoiding you. I barely know you. Exactly, I agreed, and feeling like I was suddenly back in the batters box, I decided to take another swing. And thats a shame. I gave her a mischievous smile before turning back toward the river. Natalie studied me, as though uncertain whether to stay or go. Though I thought she would opt to leave, I eventually sensed her presence beside me. Hearing her sigh as she set her basket on the ground, I knew that my third swing at bat had somehow connected. Finally, she spoke. I have a question. Go ahead. Are you always this forward? Never, I said. By nature Im quiet and reserved. A wallflower, really. I doubt that. In the river, the paddleboarders upstream were now hovering in place. In the silence, I saw her clasp her hands together at the railing. About what happened earlier, she said. In the market, when I walked away. If that seemed brusque, I apologize. No apology necessary. Still, I felt bad afterward. But its just that in small towns, people talk. And Julie When she trailed off, I finished for her. Talks more than most? I didnt want her to get the wrong idea. I understand, I said. Gossip is the bane of small-town life. Lets just hope she went home to the kids instead of coming to the park, or she might really have something to talk about. Though I said it as a joke, Natalie immediately scanned the vicinity and my eyes followed hers. As far as I could tell, no one was paying us any attention at all. Still, it made me wonder what was so terrible about the thought of being seen with someone like me. If she had any idea that she knew what I was thinking, she gave no indication, but I thought I noted an expression of relief. How do you make sweet potato pie? Are you asking for the recipe? I dont think Ive ever had sweet potato pie. Im trying to figure out what it tastes like. Its a bit like pumpkin pie. In addition to the potatoes, theres butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, evaporated milk, and a little bit of salt. But the key is really the crust. Do you make a good crust? I make a great crust. The secret is using butter, not shortening. There are strong feelings on both sides of that debate, by the way. But Ive experimented with my mom and we both agree. Does she live in town? No. Shes still in La Grange, where I grew up. Im not sure I know where that is. Its between Kinston and Goldsboro, on the way to Raleigh. My dad was a pharmacist. Still is, in fact. My dad started the business before I was born. Theres a store, too, of course. My mom manages that and works the register. When we first met, you said it was a small town. Its only about 2,500 people. And the pharmacy does okay? Youd be surprised. People need their medicines, even in small towns. But you already know that. Since youre a doctor, I mean. Was a doctor. And hope to be a doctor again one day. She was quiet for a moment. I studied her profile, but again had no idea what was going through her mind. Finally, she sighed. I was thinking about what you said the other night. About you becoming a psychiatrist to help people with PTSD. I think thats a great thing. I appreciate that. How do people even know they have it? How did you know? Strangely, I had the impression that she wasnt asking for conversations sake, or even because she was particularly interested in me. Rather, I had the sense she was asking because she was curious for her own reasons, whatever those might be. In the past, I likely would have tried to change the subject, but regular sessions with Dr. Bowen made talking about my issues easier, no matter who was asking. Everyones different, so the symptoms can vary, but I was pretty much a textbook example of the condition. I alternated between insomnia and nightmares at night, and during the day, I felt on edge almost all the time. Loud noises bothered me, my hands sometimes trembled, I got in ridiculous arguments. I spent almost a year feeling angry at the world, drinking more than I should, and playing way too much Grand Theft Auto. And now? Im managing, I said. Or, at least, I like to think I am. My doctor thinks so, too. We still talk every Monday. So youre cured? Its not something that can really be cured. Its more about managing the condition. Which isnt always easy. Stress tends to make things worse. Isnt stress part of life? No question, I admitted. Thats what makes it impossible to cure. She was silent for a moment before glancing at me with a wry smile. Grand Theft Auto, huh? For whatever reason, I cant picture you sitting on a couch playing video games all day. I got really good at it. Which wasnt easy, since Im missing fingers, by the way. Do you still play? No. That was one of the changes I made. Long story short, my therapy is all about changing negative behaviors into positive ones. My brother loves that game. Maybe I should get him to stop. You have a brother? And a sister. Sam is five years older than me, Kristen is three years older. And before you ask, they both live in the Raleigh area. Theyre married with kids. How did you end up here, then? She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, as though debating how best to answer before finally offering a shrug. Oh, you know. I met a boy in college. He was from here, and I made the move after I graduated. And here I am. I take it that it didnt work out. She closed her eyes before opening them again. Not the way I wanted. The words came out quietly, but it was hard to read the emotion behind them. Regret? Resentment? Sadness? Figuring it wasnt the time or place to ask, I let the subject drop. Instead, I shifted gears. What was it like growing up in a small town? I mean, I thought New Bern was small, but 2,500 is tiny. It was wonderful, she replied. My mom and dad knew just about everyone in town, and we left our doors unlocked. I knew everyone in all my classes, and Id spend my summers riding my bike and swimming in the pool and catching butterflies. The older I get, the more I marvel at the simplicity of it. Do you think your parents will live there forever? She shook her head. No. A few years ago, they bought a place in Atlantic Beach. They already spend as much time there as they can, and Im pretty sure thats where theyll end up when they finally retire. We actually had Thanksgiving there last year, and its just a matter of time now. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. How did you end up working for the sheriffs department? You asked me that before. Im still curious, I said. Because you didnt really answer. Theres not much to say about it. It just kind of happened. How so? In college, I majored in sociology, and after I graduated, I realized that unless I wanted to get my masters or a PhD, there werent a lot of jobs in my field. And when I moved here, it became clear that unless you own a business or have a job at Cherry Point or work for the government or the hospital, youre limited to service jobs. I thought about going back to school to become a nurse, but at the time, it seemed like too much effort. Then, I heard the sheriffs department was hiring and on a whim, I applied. I was as surprised as anyone that I was accepted into the training program. I mean, to that point in my life, Id never even held a gun. And thats what I thought it would be likebad guys, dangerous situations, shoot-outsits all about the gun, right? Thats what they show on television, anyway, and thats all I knew. But once I got in, I quickly figured out that it was more about people skills. Its about defusing situations and calming emotions whenever possible. And, of course, paperwork. Lots of paperwork. Do you enjoy it? Its like any job, I guess. There are parts about it I like, and other parts that I dont. You occasionally experience things that you wish you hadnt. Gut-wrenching things you cant forget. Have you ever shot someone? No. And Ive only had to draw my gun once. Like I said, its not what you see on television. But you know what? Do tell. Even though Id never held a gun, I ended up being a pretty good shot. Top in my class, in fact. And since then, Ive taken up skeet shooting and sporting clays, and Im pretty good at those, too. Sporting clays? Its like skeetthere are various stands and you use a shotgunbut the clays come from differing angles, with differing speeds and trajectories. Its supposed to more accurately reflect the way birds and small game move in the wild. Ive never been hunting. Neither have I. And I dont want to. But if I ever did, Id probably be pretty good. I couldnt help but feel a bit of admiration for her. Its actually not that hard to imagine you with a shotgun. Since the first time I saw you, you were armed, I mean. I find itrelaxing. When Im at the range, Im able to tune everything else out. I hear massages are good for that. Personally, I prefer yoga. Her eyebrows shot up. You do yoga? My psychiatrists recommendation. Its helpful. I can now put on my shoes without having to sit down. It makes me popular at parties. Ill bet. She laughed. Where do you do yoga around here? Nowhere yet. I havent looked for a place. Will you? Maybe. I wont be here that long. Will you ever come back? I dont know. I guess it depends on whether I sell the house. Who knows? Maybe Ill be back at the end of summer for a week to finish harvesting the honey. You know how to do that? Sure, I said. Its actually not that hard. Its sticky and messy, but not hard. She shuddered. Bees scare me. I mean, not the friendly bumblebees, but the ones that buzz around your face like theyre trying to attack you. Guard bees, I said. Some people call them bouncer bees. Theyre not my favorite, either, but theyre important for the hive. They help protect it from predators and keep bees from other colonies out of the hive. Are guard bees different than regular bees? Not really. As a bee goes through its life cycle, it will serve in various jobs at various times: Itll be an undertaker bee, or a bee that cleans the hive, or takes care of the queen, or feeds the larvae, or forages for nectar and pollen. And toward the end of its life, it may become a guard bee. Undertaker bees? she echoed. They remove the dead bees from the hive. Really? I nodded. My grandfather considered beehives to be the worlds most perfect community. Of course, the colonies are almost entirely female, so maybe that has something to do with it. In fact, Id bet that almost every bee youve ever come across has been female. Why? Male bees are called drones, and they only have two functions: They eat, and fertilize the queen, so theres not too many of them. I grinned. Its kind of the perfect job, if you ask me. Eating and sex? I think I would have been a pretty good drone. She rolled her eyes, but I could tell she thought it was sort of funny. Score one for Benson. Sowhat does a beehive look like? she asked. I mean, the kind that beekeepers maintain, not natural ones? I could describe it, but it would probably be better to actually see one. And Id be happy to show you my grandfathers, if youd like to come by sometime. She seemed to study me. When are you thinking? she asked. Any time tomorrow is fine. Early afternoon? Say one oclock? Can I think about it? Sure, I said. All right, she said with a sigh, before bending to retrieve her basket. Thanks for the visit. You too. But before you leave, would you like to join me for lunch? Im getting kind of hungry. She tilted her head and I almost thought shed say yes. Then: Thank you, but I really cant. I have some errands I have to run. No worries. I shrugged. I just thought Id offer. She just smiled and started walking, my eyes following her graceful figure. Natalie! I called out. She turned. Yes? If I was a betting man, what kind of odds would you give me that youll actually show up tomorrow? She pursed her lips. Fifty-fifty? Is there anything I can do to increase those odds? You know, she drawled, taking another step backward, I really dont think there is. Bye, now. I watched her recede into the distance, hoping she would turn to look back at me, but she didnt. I remained at the rail, replaying our conversation, and contrasting it with the way Natalie had reacted when Julie appeared at the farmers market. I understood Natalies aversion to being the focus of small-town gossip, and yet the more I considered it, the more I wondered whether that was all of it. Natalie, I suddenly realized, had purposely limited her conversation with Julie not only because of what Julie might say to others, but also because there was something Natalie didnt want me to know about herself. Now, we all have secrets. Despite what Id told her about my past, I was still a stranger, so there was no reason to expect her to share whatever hers were. But as I continued to reflect on the situation, I couldnt shake the notion that Natalie was less concerned about what her secrets might reveal than about the guilt her secrets seemed to wield over her. Chapter 5 Heres a lesson that was ingrained in me by my mom starting at a very young age: If youre expecting guests, then youd better clean the house. Ill admit that when I was a kid, it didnt compute. Why would anyone care whether all my toys had been put away in my bedroom or if I made my bed? It wasnt as though any politicians or lobbyists made their way up the stairs to my bedroom while my parents were throwing their parties. They were too busy sipping wine and downing martinis and feeling very, very important. I remember vowing that when I was older, I wouldnt care about such things. But lo and behold, with Natalies visit looming as a possibility, my moms directive came roaring back. Long story short, after I finished my run and other exercises, I tidied up the house, ran the vacuum, wiped the counters and sink, cleaned the bathroom, and finally made the bed. Washed myself, too, while singing in the shower, and then spent the rest of the morning catching up on my reading. The section in the book I was perusing dealt with the effectiveness of music as an adjunct to therapy, and as I worked my way through the material, I remembered the years Id spent playing the piano. In all candor, Id always had a bit of an on-again, off-again relationship with the instrument; I played throughout my childhood, ignored it completely while at the Naval Academy, picked it up again while I was in medical school, and then didnt so much as tap a key during my residency. In Pensacola, I played a lot, as I was lucky enough to rent a place with a beautiful 1890 B?sendorfer in the lobby of the building; but Afghanistan was another music-free period, as I doubted whether there was a single piano left in the entire country. Now, with missing fingers, playing like I once did was impossible, which made me suddenly realize how much I missed it. When I finished studying, I closed the book, got in the car, and made a trip to the grocery store. I stocked up on the essentials and made myself a sandwich when I got home. By the time I rinsed the plate, it was coming up on one oclock. Still uncertain as to whether Natalie would show up but hoping for the best, I headed out to the honey shed. Like the house and the barn, it wasnt much from the outside. The tin roof was rusting, the cedar planking had turned gray over the decades, and hinges supporting the large double doors screeched as I pulled them open. After that, however, the similarities ended; inside, the honey shed was like a museum. There was electricity, plumbing, and bright fluorescent lights; the walls and ceiling were insulated, and the concrete floor had a drain in the center. To the left was a stainless-steel sink with a long hose attached to a faucet, as well as shallow supers and queen excluders for the beehives, stacked neatly atop each other. On the right was a plastic garbage can filled with kindling for the smokers, next to deep shelves crammed with dozens of jars of honey. Directly ahead was all the other equipment and gear necessary for an apiarist: five-gallon plastic buckets with honey gates, a plastic wheelbarrow, crates filled with extra jars, and rolls of self-adhesive labels. On the back wall, supported by hooks, were nylon strainers, honey sieves, uncapping knives, two smokers, lighters, a dozen bee suits, and gloves and hoods in various sizes. There were also two extractors, which were used to spin the honey from the combs. I recognized the manual one I used to crank until I could barely move my arm, as well as the newer electric one my grandfather had purchased after his arthritis set in, and both appeared to be in perfect working order. As for the suits, I knew Id find ones that would fit both Natalie and me. He had so many because he was always willing to educate peopleoften groupswho were interested in learning about the bees. Most people werent comfortable visiting the hives without a bee suit; my grandfather, on the other hand, never bothered to put one on. They wont sting me unless I want em to, he would say with a wave. They know I take care of em. Whether that was true or not, I dont remember him ever getting stung while tending the hives. He was, however, a believer in the Southern folklore that bee venom could mitigate the pain of his arthritis, so every day without fail, hed collect two bees. While holding them by the wings, hed taunt them into stinging him, once in each knee. The first time I saw him do it, I thought he was crazy; as a physician, I now understand that he was ahead of his time. In controlled clinical studies, bee venom has actually been shown to relieve arthritis pain. If you dont believe me, look it up. Id tended to the hives so many times in the past that the next steps were automatic. I filled the smoker with kindling, collected a lighter and an uncapping knife, as well as a pair of suits, hoods, and gloves. On an impulse, I also took down two jars of honey from the shelves and brought everything to the front porch. I shook the dust from the suits and hoods before draping them over the railing, stacking everything else on the small table near the rockers. By then, it was a quarter past one. Things werent looking good on the Natalie front, but even worse was the idea of her discovering me waiting for her on the porch if she did show up. A man has got to have some pride, after all. I went back inside and poured myself a glass of sweet tea from the pitcher I had brewed the night before, then wandered to the back porch. As fate would have it, I had taken only a couple of sips before I heard a car pulling up in the drive. I couldnt suppress a smile. Walking back through the house, I opened the door just as Natalie mounted the porch. She wore jeans and a white button-up shirt that accentuated her olive-colored skin. Her sunglasses hid her eyes and her hair was pulled into a messy ponytail, all of which made her especially alluring. Hey there, I said. Im glad you decided to come. She pushed her sunglasses up into her hair. Sorry Im late. I had to take care of some things this morning. Not a problem, I said. My schedules pretty clear all day. Then, remembering the jars Id retrieved from the honey shed, I pointed to the table. I pulled those for you, I said. Since you mentioned that you liked my grandfathers honey. Very thoughtful of you, she murmured. But are you sure you have enough? More than enough. Too much, really. You could always get a table at the farmers market if you want to get rid of it. That probably wont be possible, I said. Saturday mornings are generally when I read to blind orphans. Or rescue kittens from trees. Laying it on a little thick, dont you think? Im just trying to impress you. A smile played about her lips. I dont know whether I should be flattered or not. Oh, I said. Definitely flattered. Good to know, but I cant make any promises. Im not asking you to, I countered. And regarding the honey, Claude over at the Trading Post said hed take all I could spare, so Im guessing most of it will end up there. Ill be sure to stock up before the rest of the town finds out. For a moment, silence descended and her gaze steadied on my own. I cleared my throat, suddenly self-conscious. I know you came to visit the hives, but lets sit out back first, so I can tell you what to expect. Itll make things a bit clearer when you get out there. How long will it take? Not long. No more than an hour for everything. Pulling a phone from her back pocket, she checked the time. That should be okay. She went on. I promised to visit my parents this afternoon. Theyre at the beach. I thought you had to make pies for your neighbor. I did that yesterday. Very efficient, I commented. Now come on in, I said, waving her through the doorway. Her footsteps echoed behind me as we passed from the family room to the kitchen. I paused. Can I get you something to drink? Eyeing the sweating glass of iced tea in my hand, she nodded and said, Ill have one of those, if you dont mind. Good choiceI just brewed it last night, as a matter of fact. Retrieving a glass, I added ice cubes and filled it with sweet dark tea from the refrigerator. I handed it to her, then leaned against the counter, watching as she took a sip. Its not bad. As good as your pies? No. I laughed, watching as she took another sip and surveyed the house. Despite myself, I was grateful for my moms training. Natalie, no doubt, now thought of me as tidy, in addition to rather charming. Or maybe not. I knew I was interested in her, but she was still a mystery to me. Youve made some changes to the place, she noted. Though I loved living in a time capsule, I felt the need to update the decor. It seems more open, too. My grandfather had a lot of stuff. I got rid of it. My parents are like that. On the fireplace mantel back home, there must be fifty framed photographs. Try to dust one, and they topple like dominoes. I dont understand it. Maybe the older people get, the more important the past becomes? Because theres less future ahead? Maybe, she said, without adding anything else. Unable to read her, I pushed open the back door. Ready? I followed her out onto the back porch, watching her settle in the same rocker as she had the first night Id met her. Unlike me, she didnt lean back; instead, she remained propped on the edge, as if ready to jump up and run away if she had to. After all our banter, I was surprised that she wasnt more relaxed, but I was getting the feeling that Natalie was full of surprises. I took a sip of my tea, watching as she gazed toward the creek, her profile as perfect as cut glass. I think I could stare at this forever. Me too, I said, looking only at her. She smirked, but decided to let my remark pass. Do you ever swim out there? I did when I was a kid. Right now, the waters still too cold. That might be a good thing. Apparently someone sighted some alligators a little ways upstream. Seriously? Its pretty rare to find them this far north. We get reports of them once or twice a year, but Ive never had any luck sighting any. They tend to be in places cars cant reach. If youd ever like to go out on the water, Ive got the boat right out there. That might be fun, she agreed before folding her hands in her lap, suddenly all business again. What did you want to tell me about the bees? Lets start with this, I said, setting my glass aside. How much do you know about bees? And how much do you want to know? I have about an hour, maybe a little more. So tell me whatever you think will be important. Fair enough, I said. Bee colonies have an annual cycle. In the winter, a hive might have five or ten thousand bees. In the spring, once it warms up, the queen begins laying more eggs, and the population begins to grow. During the summer months, a hive might hold up to a hundred thousand bees, which is why an apiarist might add another chamber to the hive. Then, as autumn approaches, the queen begins to lay fewer eggs. The population starts to diminish again, because the colony somehow knows it hasnt stored enough honey to feed all the bees. In the winter, the remaining bees eat the honey to survive. They also cluster together and vibrate to create heat, so the colony doesnt freeze. When it begins to warm, the cycle starts all over again. She digested that, then held up a hand. Hold on, she said. Before you go on, I want to know how you learned all this stuff. Did your grandfather teach you? We tended the hives together whenever I was down here visiting. But I also heard him give the talk to lots of different people. When I was in high school, I even did a semester-long project on bees for my science class. Just making sure you know what youre talking about. Go on. Did I detect a bit of flirting in her tone? I reached for my tea again, trying not to lose track of my thoughts. Her beauty was distracting. Every hive also has a single queen. Assuming the queen doesnt get sick, she lives from three to five years. Early on in her life cycle, the queen flies around and gets fertilized by as many male bees as she can before returning to the hive where shell lay eggs for the rest of her life. The eggs turn to larvae, and then pupae, and when theyre mature, the bees are ready to serve the hive. Unlike the queen, these worker bees live only six or seven weeks, and theyll cycle through a variety of different jobs in their short lives. The vast majority are female. The males are called drones. And all the drones do is mate with the queen and eat. You remembered. It was hard to forget, she said. What happens if the queen dies? Bee colonies have a fail-safe, I answered. No matter what time of year, when a queen is weakening or not laying enough eggs, the nurse bees will start feeding several of the larvae a substance called royal jelly. This food changes the larvae into queens, and the strongest one will take over. If necessary, that new queen will then replace the older queen. At which point, shell fly away and mate with as many drones as she can before returning to the hive to spend the rest of her life laying eggs. That isnt much of a life for a queen. Without her, the colony will die. Thats why shes called the queen. Still, youd think shed get to go shopping or attend a wedding every now and then. I smiled, recognizing in her humor something akin to my own. Now, yesterday I mentioned a few of the jobs bees do during their life cycleclean the hive or feed the larvae or whatever. But the majority of bees in any hive collect pollen and nectar. A lot of people might think that pollen and nectar are the same, but theyre not. Nectar is the sugary juice in the heart of the flowers. Pollen, on the other hand, are tiny grains that collect on the anthers. Want to guess which one leads to the making of honey? She pursed her lips. Nectar? Exactly, I said. A bee will fill its nectar sacs, fly back to the hive, and turn the nectar into honey. A bee also has glands that turn some of the sugar in the honey into beeswax. And little by little, honey is created and stored. How is nectar turned into honey? Its kind of gross. Just tell me. When a bee gets back to the hive with its load of nectar, it passes the nectar mouth-to-mouth to a different bee, who then does the same to another bee, over and over, gradually lowering the moisture content. When it gets concentrated enough, its called honey. She made a face. For a second, I could picture her as a teenager. That is kind of gross. You asked. What happens with bees who bring in pollen? Pollen is mixed with nectar to make bee bread. Thats what they feed the larvae. And the royal jelly? I dont know how thats made, I admitted. I used to know, but Ive forgotten. At least youre honest. Always, I said. But that brings us to another important point. Because the bees need to eat the honey to survive the winter, an apiarist has to be careful not to take too much when they harvest. How much is that? My grandfather would only harvest about sixty percent of the honey in any given hive, some in June and the remainder in August. Some of the larger producers will take a higher percentage, but its generally not a good idea. Is that what happened to the bees? What do you mean? I read some articles saying that bees were dying out. And that if they did, humanity wouldnt survive. The latter part is true. Without bees spreading pollen from one plant to another, many crops simply cant survive. As to the first part, the decline in the bee population probably has less to do with overharvesting than the overuse of chemicals to clear the hive. My grandfather never used chemicals because, really, you dont need them. Ill show you when we get out there, but I think thats it for now. I set my glass aside. Unless theres something else youd like to know? Yeah, about the guard bees. Why do they buzz around your face? Because it works, I said with a laugh. People dont like it, so they retreat. Keep in mind that in the wild, bears will ravage beehives. The only way a tiny bee can protect the hive from a giant bear is to sting it in the eyes, the nose, or the mouth. She hesitated. Okay. But I still dont like them. Thats why well be wearing suits. You ready? Natalie stood from her seat and led the way inside before stopping in the kitchen to deposit her glass. Meanwhile, I pulled two spoons from the kitchen drawer, wrapped them in a paper towel, and put them in my pocket. Retracing our steps to the front porch, I handed the smaller suit to her. Slip this on over your clothes, I said. I pulled off my shoes, then put on a suit; Natalie did the same, and I made sure everything was zipped properly. After we put our shoes back on, I handed her the mesh hoodit was connected to a hat with a round brimand the gloves, then used the lighter to get the smoker going. Whats that? Its a smoker. It calms the bees. How? The bees interpret smoke as part of a forest fire and theyll begin feeding on the honey in case they have to move the hive somewhere else. I collected the rest of the gear and motioned for her to follow. We set off in the direction of the hives, passing clutches of azalea bushes, into an area dense with dogwoods, flowering cherry trees, and magnolias. The air was thick with the sound of buzzing, and bees could be seen clustering on practically every bloom. At the edge of the property, the vegetation grew denser. Directly ahead I caught sight of one of the hives; though my grandfather had built his own, they were similar to ones that could be purchased as kits or used by commercial farmers, consisting essentially of a stand supporting a stack of wooden chambers, along with lids. As always, I was amazed by the idea that it would be home to more than a hundred thousand bees. We should stop here and put on the rest of our gear. After donning our gloves, we approached the hive, bees bumping against the mesh of our hoods. I added air to the smoker and puffed out some smoke near the hive before setting it on the ground. Thats it? You dont need much smoke, I explained. Bees have an acute sense of smell. I pointed toward an area beneath the lip of the lid. Do you see this? Its how the bees get in and out of the hive. She took a cautious step closer. How long do we have to wait for the smoke to work? Its working now, I said. Theyll be calm for fifteen or twenty minutes. Does the smoke hurt them? Not at all, I said. Let me show you the inside of the hive. Lifting off the top lidor outer cover, in beekeeper-speakI set it aside. Then, using the uncapping knife, I loosened the inner cover. Always a bit sticky, it was harder than usual to pry off, probably because it hadnt been removed in months. Once I freed the inner cover, I set it on the ground as well. Come take a peek, I said. Theyre friendly now. With obvious trepidation, she peered over my shoulder. I pointed to the top chamber. This part of the hive is called the upper deep. Its the food chamber. There are ten hanging frames, and this is where most of the honey is stored. Pointing to the chamber beneath it, I went on. The one right below is called the lower deep, and its the brood chamber. Wow, she murmured. There were hundreds of slow-moving bees crawling on top of and between the frames. Natalie seemed genuinely rapt. Im glad you were interested in coming here, I said. Otherwise I probably would have forgotten to add the shallow super and the queen excluder. I didnt remember until I saw them in the honey shed. What are they for? The shallow super adds additional honey storage to the hive for the larger summer bee population. Its like the upper deep, only smaller. The queen excluder ensures that the queen wont up and fly away. You dont need them year-round? I shook my head. Youll want a smaller hive in the winter so its easier to keep warm. On the upper deep, bees continued to crawl around with unflagging energy and purpose. I pointed to a large wasplike one. See this one? I asked. Thats a drone. She peered closer, then eventually pointed to another. That one, too? I nodded. As I told you, theyre greatly outnumbered by the females, like Hugh Hefner in the Playboy Mansion. Nice metaphor, she drawled. I grinned. Let me show you something. I removed my gloves, then reached down and gently picked up one of the worker bees by her wings. She was still docile from the smoke. Using the thumbnail on my other hand, I provoked her until she tried to sting me through the nail. What are you doing? Natalie whispered. Are you trying to make her angry? Bees dont get angry. I manipulated the bee again, and again it tried to sting me three, four, and then five times. Watch this, I went on. I put the bee on the back of my hand and let go of the wings. Instead of continuing to try to sting, the bee took a few steps and then flew slowly back toward the upper deep. The bee doesnt care about me, or what I just did to her, I said. She was just trying to protect herself. Now that the threat is gone, she doesnt hold a grudge. Through the mesh, I read fascination and newfound respect. Interesting, she said. Way more complex than I imagined. Bees are extraordinary creatures, I said, hearing the echo of my grandfathers voice. Do you want to see the honey? And the larvae? Id love to, she said. Using the uncapping knife, I loosened one of the frames at the top edge, then loosened the other side until I could slowly pull it free. As I did, I watched Natalies eyes widen; the frame was covered with hundreds of bees on both sides. After checking it over and determining that the cells didnt have the variety I wanted, I slid it back into the hive. There should be a better one, I remarked. Its still early in the season. It took three frames before I found the one I wanted, and I removed it fully from the hive. Like the others, it was swarmed with bees, and I held it in front of her. Do you remember when I told you that big producers use chemicals to clear the hives? So they can harvest the honey? I remember. This is why you dont need chemicals. I took a small step back and with a quick motion, jerked the frame up and down. Nearly all the bees flew away and I held up the virtually empty frame in front of her. Thats all you have to do to clear the bees from the frame so you can get to the honey, I said. Just a single, quick shake. Then why do the big producers use chemicals? I have no idea, I said. I havent been able to figure that out yet. Angling the frame for a better view, I pointed to various cells as I spoke. These cells up here in the corner, covered in the beeswax, are filled with honey. These lighter ones down here contain larvae and eggs. And the empty ones will all be filled with honey by the end of the summer. More comfortable with the hive now, Natalie moved even closer. There were still a few bees on the frame, and she slowly reached a finger of her gloved hand toward one of them, marveling as it ignored her completely. Another slowly crawled over her gloved finger then onto the frame again. Theyre not mad that you shook off all their friends? Not at all. What about killer bees? Theyre different, I said. As a colony, theyre a lot more aggressive in protecting the hive. These bees might send out ten or fifteen guard bees when they feel the hive is threatened, but killer bees will send out hundreds of guard bees. There are some historical and evolutionary theories as to the reason why, but unless youre really interested, we can save that for another time. Do you want to taste some of the honey? Now? Why not? Were here. Is itready? Its perfect, I assured her. Reaching into my pocket, I pulled out the spoons and unwrapped them. I held one out to her. Would you mind holding this for a second? She took the spoon while I used the other to crush my way through some of the beeswax-coated cells. Raw, pure honey spilled onto the spoon. Trade you, I said. Natalie took the spoon with honey, while I did the same to mine. Hold this one for a second, too, okay? She nodded. Her eyes flickered from me to the honey, golden in the sunlight. I reassembled the hive, picked up the smoker and uncapping knife, then took one of the spoons from her. We walked away from the hives, in the direction of the shed. When we were a safe distance away, I motioned to her that it was fine to take off her hood and gloves. When I could see her face without the mesh, it was glowing with excitement and interest, her skin dewy with a light sheen of perspiration. I held up the spoon, as though making a toast. Ready? I tapped my spoon against hers, then ate the honey, finding it was sweet enough to make my teeth hurt. After she tasted hers, she closed her eyes and took a long breath. It tastes Flowery? And delicious. But yes, theres a very strong floral flavor. Honey will taste different depending on where the hive is located, because the nectar the bees collect will be different. Thats why some honey is sweeter than others, some have a slightly fruitier flavor, others more flowery. Its kind of like wine. Im not sure Ive noticed a big difference in flavors until now. Most commercial honey is clover honey. Bees love clover, which is why theres a clover patch on the property, too. But honey is also one of the most manipulated and lied-about foods on the planet. A lot of commercial honey is actually honey mixed with flavored corn syrup. You have to be careful where you buy. She nodded, but there was something trancelike about her demeanor, as if the combination of the sun, the soothing droning of the bees, and the elixir of honey had relaxed the defenses she usually erected around herself. Her lips were parted and moist, her aquamarine eyes drowsy and translucent. When her gaze drifted from the hive to meet mine, I felt an almost hypnotic pull. I took a step toward her, the sound of my own breath loud in my ears. She seemed to know how I was feeling and was flattered by it. But just as quickly, she caught herself and picked up the hood and gloves, severing the thread of the moment. I forced myself to speak. Would you like to see how the honey is extracted? Itll only take a couple of minutes. Sure. Without another word, we started in the direction of the honey shed. When we got there, she handed me the hood and gloves, then proceeded to take off the bee suit. I did the same and put everything back in place. I moved the manual extractor away from the wall. She came over to inspect the extractor but was careful to keep a safe distance. To harvest the honey, you take frames from the hive, shake off the bees, and load them in the wheelbarrow to bring them here, I began, slowly but surely regaining my equilibrium. Then, one at a time, you load the frames into the extractor, between these slots. You turn the crank, and it spins the frame. Centrifugal force will push the honey and beeswax from the combs. I turned the crank, demonstrating how it worked. Once the honey is spun out of the frame, you place one of those nylon bags into a plastic bucket, set it beneath the nozzle on the extractor, open the nozzle, and let the honey drain into the bucket. The nylon bag captures the wax but lets the honey pass through. After that, the honey goes into a jar and its ready to go. Wordlessly, Natalie took in the rest of the shed, wandering idly from one station to the next, finally stopping in front of the plastic garbage can. Lifting the lid, she saw the wood chips and shavings; by her expression, I knew shed figured out that the contents were for use in the smoker. She examined the back wall, inspecting all the equipment, and waved at the rows of neatly labeled jars of honey. Its so organized in here. Always, I agreed. My dad has a work shed like this, she commented, turning to face me again. Where everything has a purpose, everything has a place. Yeah? He buys old transistor radios and phonographs from the 1920s and 1930s and then repairs them in a shed behind our house. I used to love spending time there as a little girl when he was working. He had a high-backed stool and hed wear these glasses that magnified everything. I can still remember how big his eyes were. Even now, whenever I visit them in La Grange, the shed is usually where the two of us talk about life. Thats an unusual hobby. I think he finds it peaceful. She sounded wistful. And hes proud of it, too. Theres a whole section in the store with refurbished electronics on display. Does he sell any? Hardly. She laughed. Not everyone shares his fascination with antique electronics. Sometimes he talks about opening a small museum, maybe one thats attached to the store, but hes been talking about it for years, so who knows? What does your mom do while your dad is tinkering? She bakes, she answered. Which is why I know how to make a great piecrust. And she sells what she bakes at the store, unless we eat it first. Your parents sound like good people. They are, she said. They worry about me. I stayed quiet, expecting her to go on, but she didnt. I finally offered a gentle prod. Because youre a deputy? Partly, she conceded. Then, as though realizing the conversation had veered in an unintended direction, she shrugged. Parents always worry. Thats the nature of parenthood. But that reminds me I should get going. Theyll be waiting for me. Of course, I said. Ill walk you to your car. We left the shed, walking down the pathway toward the drive. She drove an older model, silver Honda, a sensible car she probably intended to keep as long as it still ran. I opened the drivers side door for her; inside, I saw her handbag on the passenger seat, and a small crucifix hanging from the rearview mirror. I enjoyed the day so much, she said. Thank you. I did too, I admitted. And youre welcome. The sun was at her back, making her face difficult to read, but when she placed her hand lightly on my forearm, I sensed that she, like me, didnt want the day to end just yet. How long will you be at your parents? Not long, she said. Ill visit for a couple of hours and then head back home. I have to work tomorrow morning. How about we meet for dinner later? When you get back? She studied me carefully, then hedged. Im not sure what time that will be. Any time is fine, I said. You could shoot me a text when youre leaving and I could meet you somewhere. Ium She trailed off before reaching into her pocket and pulling out her keys. I dont like to go out in New Bern, she finally said. Though I could have asked her the reason, I didnt. Instead, I took a step backward, giving her space. Its just dinner, not a commitment. Everyones got to eat. She said nothing, but part of me began to suspect that she wanted to say yes. As to why she was holding back, I still wasnt sure. I could meet you down at the beach if its easier, I offered. Thats out of the way for you. I havent been to the beach since Ive been back here, I said. Ive been meaning to go. Well, not really. Not until just now, anyway. I dont know of any good restaurants at the beach, she said. Then how about Beaufort? You must have someplace you like there. As I waited for her answer, she jingled her keys. There is a place she began, her voice barely audible. Anywhere, I said. The Blue Moon Bistro, she said in a rush, almost like she was afraid she would change her mind. But it cant be too late. Pick the time. Ill meet you there. How about half past six? Perfect. Thank you again for the beekeeping lesson today. Glad to do it, I said. I enjoyed spending time with you. She let out a soft exhale as she slipped into the drivers seat. Me too. I closed her door and she turned the key. The engine came to life, and glancing over her shoulder, she backed the car out. As the car stopped and then began to roll forward, I reflected on the mystery of Natalie Masterson. By turns confident and vulnerable, revealing and secretive, she seemed to be a woman of complex instincts. Still, what had begun as a flirty diversion had already begun to morph into something deeper, a desire to connect with and truly understand a woman whom I couldnt figure out. Nor could I shake my desire to connect with the real Natalieto leap the wall she seemed compelled to build between usand perhaps form something even deeper and more meaningful. Even to me, it struck me as a romantic notion that bordered on the ridiculousI reminded myself again that I didnt really know herbut at the same time, I know what my grandfather would have said. Trust your instincts, just like the bees do. Walking back to the house, I spotted the jars of honey on the porch table and realized shed forgotten to take them. I put them in the SUV, then spent the rest of the afternoon on the back porch with a textbook in my lap, trying not to think about Natalie or even my own feelings, but finding it impossible to concentrate. Instead, I replayed our time together over and over again, finally admitting to myself that I was simply counting the minutes until I could see her again. Chapter 6 What to wear. Normally, I wouldnt have thought twice about it, but I found myself googling the restaurant to get a better idea of the dress code. As far as I could tell, the place was tasteful and charming. Built in a historic home, the photos showed heart pine flooring, smaller tables with white tablecloths, and plenty of natural light streaming in through the windows. I could imagine getting away with jeans, but in the end, I went with your basic Annapolis look: tan pants, a white button-up shirt, navy sport jacket, and Top-Siders. All I needed was a scarf, and I could walk around saying things like, Anyone up for some yachting? It would take a little under an hour to get there, but not wanting to be late, I made it across the bridge to Beaufort with at least forty-five minutes to spare. The town was nestled on the Intracoastal, and I parked near the waterfront, just around the corner from the restaurant. I spotted a pair of wild horses across the waterway, grazing on one of the many barrier islands that make up the coastline of North Carolina. My grandfather told me these horses were descended from the mustangs that survived Spanish shipwrecks off the coast, but who knew if that was true? I decided to use the extra time to browse the art galleries along the waterfront. Most of the work was by local artists, featuring either beach themes or the historic architecture in Beaufort. In one of the galleries, I saw a painting of a house where Blackbeard the Pirate had allegedly lived; I vaguely recalled that the wreck of Blackbeards ship, the Queen Annes Revenge, had been discovered in the Beaufort Inlet. The gallery owner confirmed my recollection, though he also admitted that there was some uncertainty about the whole thing. The wreck was estimated to be the correct size and the cannons theyd found on the ocean floor were from that period, but there was nothing to specifically indicate the name of the ship. It wasnt as though theyd been able to reach into the glove compartment and check the registration, and the ocean can cause a lot of damage in three hundred years. Wandering to the waterfront again, I noticed the sun slowly going down, casting a golden prism across the water. Heavenly light, my grandfather used to call it, and I smiled, reminiscing about all the times hed brought me here for an afternoon at the beach, followed by an ice cream cone in Beaufort. Thinking back, I was amazed by how much time hed been able to make for me whenever I was in town. I found myself turning again to his strange journey to Easley, my last visit with him, and his final, mystifying words to me. Go to hell Not wanting to dwell on it, I shook the thought away. By then, it was coming up on six thirty, and I started toward the restaurant, wondering whether shed show. Just then, however, I saw Natalies car pulling into an open space near my SUV. I turned in that direction, reaching her car just as she climbed out. Shed changed into a flowered, high-necked sleeveless dress that accentuated her figure, and black medium-heeled boots, with a sweater draped over her arm. A thin gold chain around her neck glowed in the waning light. When she reached inside the car for her purse, I noted how graceful her every move was. Her arms and legs were lithe and toned, swishing the thin fabric of her dress around her in a tantalizing motion. Closing the car door, she turned and startled. Oh, hey, she said. Im not late, am I? Youre actually a few minutes early, I said. You look great. She adjusted the thin necklace, as though making sure thelocket? medallion?was hidden from view. Thank you, she said. Did you just get here? I came a little early, I said. How did your visit with your parents go? Same as usual. She sighed. When hes at the beach, my dad likes to read on the back porch. My mom has been slowly decorating the place since they bought it, and was dying to show me the redecorated guest room. I love them to bits, but sometimes spending time with them feels like the movie Groundhog Day, where every day is the same. I nodded in the direction of the restaurant. Do you want to head over? Let me put my sweater on. Its a bit chilly, dont you think? She held out her purse. Can you hold this for a second? As she slipped the sweater on, I found myself wondering if she felt self-conscious in her lovely, formfitting dress. I wasnt cold in the slightest. Wrapping it tightly around her, she took her purse back and we crossed the street. There were few other people out and about; the town, I observed, was even sleepier than New Bern. When was the last time you ate at the Blue Moon Bistro? Its been a while, she said. A year and a half, maybe? Why so long? Life. Work. Errands. Unless Im visiting my parents, its a little out of the way. As a general rule, I tend toward quieter evenings at home. Dont you and your friends ever go out? Not too much, no. Why not? Life. Work. Errands, she said again. Because Im still low on the totem pole at work, my schedule changes a lot. Sometimes, I work days, other times, its nights and it changes regularly. It can be a challenge to schedule things with friends. Thats inconvenient, I said. It is, she agreed. But it pays the bills. And Im very responsible. Always? I try to be. Thats too bad. No, its not. I beg to differ, I said. In the end, people generally regret the things they didnt do, not the things they did. Who told you that? she scoffed. Common sense? Try again. My psychiatrist? Did he really say that? No, but Im sure he would have. Hes a very smart guy. She laughed, and I noted how different she was from the first night Id met her. It was almost as though her uniform had the ability to transform her personality. But then I realized that the same was true about me. In a lab coat or scrubs, I was one person; dressed like a yachtsman, I was someone different. When we reached the restaurant, a teenage girl welcomed us. About half of the tables were occupied. She pulled a pair of menus from the stand and led the way to a small table near one of the many windows. As I walked, I heard the floor creaking with age and history. I pulled out Natalies chair for her, then took a seat across from her. Through the window, the view didnt offer much: just another historic house directly across the street. No water view, no potential sunset, no wild horses. As though reading my mind, Natalie leaned across the table. Its quaint, but the food is really good, she said. Trust me. Anything I should have in particular? Everything is great, she assured me. I nodded and after spreading my napkin in my lap, I perused the menu. Ive decided to go on the seafood diet, I announced. Whats that? See food and eat it. She rolled her eyes, but I saw her crack a faint smile. In the silence, I studied the menu again before suddenly remembering what Id left in the car. By the way, you forgot to take the jars of honey I left for you. I remembered as soon as I got home. Well anyway, I brought them for you, so remind me on our way out. The waitress arrived and took our drink orders. Both of us ordered iced tea, along with water. When we were alone at the table again, I tried not to stare at her, the burnished halo of her hair in the candlelight framing her delicate features and unusually colored eyes. Instead, I delved into learning more about her, hungry for details about her past and everything that shaped the person she was now. So your dad fixes old electronics, your mom bakes and decorates, I summarized. How about your siblings? What can you tell me about them? She shrugged. Theyre both in baby hell right now, she said. Or, rather, toddler hell. Both have two kids under three. Even compared to me, they have no life at all. And you? Ive already told you about my life. Some things, but not really. Tell me what you were like as a kid. Its not that exciting. I was pretty shy as a girl, although I loved to sing, she began. But lots of young girls love to sing and its not as though I did anything with it. I guess I started coming into my own in high school and finally escaped my older siblings shadows. I won the lead in the high school musical, joined the yearbook committee, even played soccer. We have that in common, I said. Music and soccer. I remember, she said. But I dont think I was as good as you were at either of them. I played soccer mainly so I could spend time with my friends. I didnt even start until I was a senior, and I think I only scored one goal the whole season. I quickly chose the fried green tomatoes as an appetizer and tuna for the main course, setting the menu aside. Did you go to high school in La Grange? La Grange is too small for a high school, so I ended up going to Salem Academy. Have you heard of it? When I shook my head, she went on. Its an all-girls boarding school in Winston-Salem, she said. My mom went there, and so did my older sister, Kristen. My brother went to Woodberry Forest in Virginia. My parents were big on education, even if it meant shipping us off to boarding schools. Did you like that? Not at first. Even though my sister was there, I was homesick and my grades were terrible. I think I cried myself to sleep every night for months. But I eventually got used to it. By the time I graduated, I loved it, and I still keep in touch with a few of the girls I met there. And I think going away to school helped when I went to NC State. When I moved into the dorms as a freshman, I was used to living without my parents, so the transition to college was super easy. But Im still not sure Id go that route with my own kids. If I ever have them, I mean. I think Id miss them too much. Do you want kids? It took her a few beats to answer. Maybe, she finally offered. Not right now. And for all I know, it might never happen. The future remains unwritten, right? I suppose. She set her menu on top of mine at the edge of the table. I saw her eyes come to rest on my injured hand. Instead of hiding it, I spread my remaining fingers on the table. Looks strange, doesnt it? I commented. No. She shook her head. Im sorry. It was rude of me to stare Its understandable. Even though Im used to it, I still think its strange. But losing fingers is better than losing an ear. At her puzzled expression, I pointed to the side of my head. This isnt real, I said. Its a prosthetic. I wouldnt have known unless youd told me. Im not sure why I did. But I knew the reason. As much as I wanted to know her, I also wanted her to know the real me, to feel as though I could be completely open with her. She was silent for a moment and I thought shed change the subject, or even excuse herself to go to the restroom. Instead, she surprised me by reaching out and gently tracing the scarred stumps where my fingers used to be. The touch was electric. The explosion must have beenhorrific, she said, her fingertip still on my skin. Ive thought about it since you told me. But you didnt go into any detail. Id like to hear about it if youre comfortable telling me. I offered a condensed version of the story: the random mortar blast after Id exited the building, a flash of sudden heat and searing, and then nothing at all until I woke after my first surgeries. The flights to Germany and then back to the US, and the series of additional surgeries and rehabilitation at Walter Reed and Johns Hopkins. At some point while I was speaking, she removed her hand from mine, but even after I finished, I could still feel the ghostly remnants of her touch. Im sorry you had to endure all that, she said. If I could go back in time, Id leave the hospital a few minutes earlier or later. But I cant. As for right now, Im trying to move forward in positive ways. Ill bet your parents are still proud of you. As soon as she said it, I remembered my previous experiences when Id shared what had happened to them. I knew I should simply offer something ambiguous like, I hope so, without going into details, but with the way Natalie was looking at me, I realized I didnt want to keep the words inside me. My parents died a month before I graduated from college. They were taking a trip to Marthas Vineyard, some political soiree that probably meant virtually nothing in the long run. A client had chartered a plane, but they never made it. The plane crashed in Virginia less than five minutes after takeoff. Oh my God! Thats awful! It was, I said. One day they were there, and the next day they were gone and I was crushed. The whole thing felt surrealstill does sometimes. I was only twenty-two, but I still felt like I was closer to being a teenager than an adult. I can still remember when my commanding officer came into my class and called me to his office so he could tell me. I hesitated, the memories still vivid. Because I was largely done with my classes, the Academy gave me leave to handle the affairs and that was in some ways even more surreal. My grandfather came up to help, but stillI had to find a funeral home and choose caskets and pick out a dress for my mom and a suit for my dad, figure out what they would have wanted for services. Id just spoken on the phone to them a few days earlier. Im glad your grandfather was there for you. We needed each other, no question about it. Hed already lost his wife, and had just lost his only child. We ended up driving back to New Bern after the services, and I dont think either of us said a word the entire trip. It wasnt until we got to his house that we could even talk about it at all, and we both shed a lot of tears that week. It was just so sad for me to think of all the things they would never have the chance to do, or what my future would be like without them. I cant imagine losing my parents like that. There are moments when I still cant. Its been a decade now, but sometimes, it still feels like I should be able to pick up the phone and call them. I dont know what to say. No one does. Its hard for people to fathom. I mean, who becomes an orphan at twenty-two? Its not as though there are many people who ever have to deal with something like that. She looked away, as though still trying to process what I said, just as the waitress arrived to take our dinner orders. Almost robotically, Natalie ordered a beet salad and red snapper, and I ordered the choices Id picked earlier. When the waitress retreated, Natalie looked up at me. When I was young, my best friend died. I know its not even close to the same, but I remember how awful it was. What happened? We were both twelve. She lived two doors down, and her birthday was only a week before mine. Her parents were friends with my parents, so we pretty much grew up together. Went to the same school, we were in the same class all the way through, we even both took the same dance lessons. At the time, I think I was closer to Georgianna than I was to either my sister or my brother. Even when we werent together, we spoke on the phone all the time. But anyway, wed walked home from school together. I remember we were talking about this boy named Jeff, who she thought was cute, and she was wondering whether he liked her, too. We said goodbye at my house, and I remember hugging her goodbye. We always hugged. Anyway, about an hour after that, she wanted an ice cream sandwich, so she decided to walk to the convenience store, maybe three blocks away. While she was walking, she was hit by a drunk driver and died. I could tell by her expression that she was reliving that moment and I stayed silent. When she finally realized I hadnt responded, she shook her head. Like I said, its not the same as losing both your parents. I didnt lose my best friend when I was young, either. Im sorry for your loss. Thank you, she said. Then, exhibiting a bit of false cheer, she added: But look at us. Could our conversation get any more depressing? I prefer to think of it as the two of us being honest with each other. Its still not the best dinner topic. What would you like to discuss instead? Anything. All right, I said. What else can you tell me about growing up? Good things, I mean. Like what? Did you have any pets? When she looked skeptical, I added, Im just trying to get an idea of who you were. We had a dog and a cat for most of my childhood. They were named Fred and Barney. From The Flintstones? Exactly. How about family vacations? We took them all the time, she said. We went to Disney World every other year, wed go skiing in West Virginia or Colorado, and wed rent a house in the Outer Banks for two weeks every summer. One set of grandparents lived in Charlotte, and another near Boone, so wed visit them, too. There were a lot of long car rides and I used to dread thembut now I think it helped us form closer ties as a family. It sounds idyllic. It was, she said, seemingly growing more comfortable with sharing. I have no complaints about our family life. I dont know too many people who can say that. I thought everyone had issues with their parents. Im not saying they were perfect, but it was easier for me and my siblings because they get along so well. Considering they work together all day and then go home together, youd think theyd get tired of each other. But my dad is still crazy about my mom, and she dotes on him. There was a lot of laughter and we had dinner together every night as a family. I grinned, marveling at how different our childhoods had been. What led you to choose NC State? After you finished high school? Its where my dad went to school, she answered. My mom went to Meredith, which is an all-girls college in Raleigh. But after Salem Academy, I wanted a big, public, coed school. I also knew it would make my dad happy. In fact, all of usmy brother and sisterwent to NC State. Were all die-hard Wolfpack fans, in case youre wondering. Even my mom has been converted. My dad has season tickets for football and we usually have a family tailgate once or twice a year. My parents go to every home game. And thats where you met the guy you followed to New Bern, right? Mark, she said, adding nothing else. You loved him? I asked. Yes, she said, her gaze falling. But hes not someone I want to talk about. Fair enough, I said. I think I have a pretty good idea of who you are, even without that part of your life. You do, huh? Well, some of it, anyway. Whats confusing you? Im still not sure why you decided to become a deputy. You strike me as more like the teacher or nurse type. Or maybe an accountant. Should I be offended by that? Im not saying youre not tough enough. I guess its just that you strike me as intelligent, caring, and thoughtful. Its a good thing. She scrutinized me for a beat. I already told you, she answered. I sort of fell into it. But to your point about nursing, I get that a lot, actually, although Im not sure why. To me, hospitalsare She hesitated. Theyre depressing. I hate hospitals. And besides, I get squeamish at the sight of blood. Another reason not to be in your line of work. I think weve established that Im not engaging in shoot-outs every shift. But if you were, youd be fine. Since youre an excellent shot. My nickname is Bulls-eye, she said with a wink. In my own mind, anyway. The waitress came by with bread and rolls, apologizing that she hadnt brought them earlier. I took a roll and buttered it, as did Natalie. While we nibbled, the conversation continued to drift here and there, with an ease typical of people whod known each other far longer. We talked about the bees and beehives, shared memories of our college experiences, life in a small town versus the city, the Navy, favorite rides at Disney World, a bit about my parents and my grandfather. I even touched on my grandfathers curious journey to Easley and his final words to me. When the waitress brought our food, it was as delicious as Natalie had promised. Out of town or not, it was a place where Id gladly eat again. Especially with Natalie. Though our easy rapport continued throughout dinner, it never crossed into the territory of flirtingwhether she felt any real romantic interest in me was hard to tell. That she was enjoying dinner and my company, I had no doubt. As to whether she ever wanted to have dinner again, I honestly had no idea. And yet, I couldnt recall the last time Id had such a pleasurable evening. It wasnt just because shed said the right things when Id told her about my parents, or that shed shared with me her own loss from childhood. Instead, I realized that I admired the value she placed on certain thingsfamily, education, friendship, and kindness, among other thingsand it was clear that she struggled with some of the things she saw regularly on her jobaddiction, domestic violence, bar fights. She confessed that those things sometimes left her feeling agitated and unable to sleep after a shift had ended. Why dont you quit? I finally asked. You have a degree and work experience. Im sure you could find something else. Maybe, she admitted. But for now, I think its best if I stick with it. Because you want to make a difference? She touched the thin gold chain at her neck. Sure, she finally said, lets go with that. Neither one of us was in the mood for dessert, but we agreed on coffee. A little caffeine would help with the drive back to New Bern. As she stirred her cup, I realized that aside from work and family, shed told me little about herself since shed arrived in New Bern a few years back. In fact, shed said barely anything about her life in New Bern at all. Maybe to her it wasnt all that interesting. But as I turned these facts over in my mind, Natalie stared out the window. Because of the interior lights of the restaurant, I was treated to her profile as it was reflected back in the glass. And in that moment, I understood that instead of focusing on the evening wed just spent together, she had something else on her mind. Something that made her feel sad. * * * In old-school fashion and because Id invited her, I paid the check. To her credit, she was content to let me do so with a gracious thank-you. The night had cooled by the time we began the ambling trek toward our vehicles. It was clear, with a spray of stars overhead and the Milky Way illuminating a path toward the horizon. The streets were empty, but from the restaurants near the water, I could hear the faint murmur of conversation and clinking glasses. Waves gently lapped against the seawall. It still wasnt late and I thought about suggesting that we sit on the veranda of the restaurant, with its glorious view, but I was nearly certain that shed decline. To that point, wed yet to have had so much as a glass of wine when we were together, not that it mattered. It was simply another interesting quality of the time wed spent together. I was thinking about what you told me earlier, she finally said. About your grandfather. Which part? His last trip, and his end at the hospital, she said. Youre sure that hed never mentioned Easley before? Not to me, I said. Claude didnt know anything, either, but I havent spoken with his father yet. Then for all you know, he could have been on the way to somewhere else, she pointed out. By then, wed reached the waterfront. She paused, her ocean-colored eyes searching mine. A strand of spun-gold hair fell across her face, and I was tempted to tuck it behind her ear. Her voice broke my reverie. Have you thought about trying to find his truck? His truck? There might be something in the cab, she explained. Maybe an itinerary, or the name of whomever he was visiting, or even the place he was going. Notes, maps, anything. Even before shed finished speaking, I wondered why I hadnt thought of it before. Then again, I wasnt in law enforcement or a fan of mystery novels, so maybe that had something to do with it. Youre right, I mused aloud. But how would I find his truck? Id start with the hospital. Find out who they use for ambulance services. Theres probably a record somewhere of where they picked him up. Depending on where he was found, the truck might still be there. Or it may have been towed, but at least youll have a starting point. Thats a great idea, I said. Thank you. Youre welcome. She nodded. And let me know what happens. Im interested, too. I will, I said. Which reminds meI dont think I have your cell number. In case I need to call. Or wanted to call, which was far more likely. Oh, she said, and I got the impression that she wasnt sure how she felt about that. Not wanting to give her too much time to think, I reached for my phone and activated the contact list. After a moment, she took ither reluctance was clearand typed in her details before handing it back to me. I should probably be heading back, she announced. Early day tomorrow, and I still have to finish some laundry. I understand, I said. I have a busy day tomorrow, too. Thank you again for dinner. Youre welcome. It was a pleasure getting to know you better. You too. It was nice. Nice? Not exactly the description Id been hoping for. Oh, before you go, let me get the honey. I retrieved the jars from my SUV and handed them over, feeling a kinetic jolt as our fingers brushed. I was reminded of the way shed gently touched my scar earlier. I knew I wanted to kiss her, but she must have read my mind and automatically took a small step backward. In the sudden space between us, I detected a lingering energy, as though shed wanted to kiss me as well. Perhaps I was imagining it, but I thought I detected a trace of regret in her parting smile. Thank you for these, too, she said. Im almost out. She turned and slowly made her way to her car. As I watched her go, I thought of something and pulled the phone from my pocket again. The screen was still on the contact page, and I dialed the number. A few seconds later, I heard the faint sound of a phone beginning to ring. She reached into her purse before catching sight of the number and glancing at me over her shoulder. Just checking, I said. She rolled her eyes before getting into her car. I waved as she drove past and she returned the gesture before reaching the road that would take her back to New Bern. Alone, I wandered to the railing, watching the ocean sparkle in the moonlight. The breeze had picked up, cooling the air, and I turned my face to it, pondering her reluctance to kiss me. Was it part of her overall hesitation to appear in public with me? Was she really worried about small-town gossip, even this far from New Bern? Or was it that she was already seeing someone else? Chapter 7 I hadnt been lying to Natalie when Id said I had things to do on Monday. As opposed to most days, when I had time to goof off before taking a break and then goofing off some more, the responsibilities of life sometimes intruded, even if I didnt have to punch a clock or show up at the hospital or office. For starters, it was almost the middle of April, and my taxes were officially due. The documents had been waiting for weeks in a cardboard box delivered courtesy of UPS. I used the same accounting firm my parents had used, initially because I knew nothing about finance or accounting, and after that because I assumed that switching to another firm would add unnecessary complications to my life, when things were already complicated enough. Frankly, thinking about money bores me, probably because Ive never had to really worry about it. My taxes were complicated because of the various trusts, investments, and portfolios Id inherited from my parents, some of which had been funded with more life insurance than either of my parents needed. Still, whenever I saw my net worthmy accountants would meticulously prepare a balance sheet for me every FebruaryI would sometimes wonder why Id been so insistent on becoming a doctor in the first place. It wasnt as though I needed the money. The interest I collected annually was a lot more than I would ever earn as a doctor, but I think something inside me craved my parents approval, even if they were no longer around. When I graduated from medical school, I imagined them clapping in the audience; in my minds eye, I saw my moms eyes welling with tears while my father beamed with pride at a job well done. In that moment, I understood clearly that Id rather my parents were alive than to have received the generous inheritance theyd left me. When my statements arrive in the mail every year, Im always reminded of those losses, and there are times when Im too overwhelmed to even peruse them. Even though Id tried to explain it to Natalie while wed been at dinner, I knew I hadnt been able to find the words to adequately express the loss or grief I really felt. Because I was an only child, I hadnt just lost my parents; Id lost my entire immediate family as well. Over the years, Id gradually come to believe that family is like your shadow on a sunny day, always there, just over your shoulder, following you in spirit no matter where you are or what youre doing. Theyre always with you. Thank God my grandfather was there to carry on part of that role, as he had so many other roles when I was younger. With his passing, however, the days are now endlessly cloudy, and when I glance over my shoulder, there is nothing there at all. I know there are others in my situation, but that doesnt make me feel any better. It just makes me think that no shadows follow them either; that they, like me, often feel entirely alone. Reflecting on all of this made me wonder whether I would actually sell my grandfathers property. Though Id told myself that Id come to New Bern to get the place ready for the realtor, it was also the only remaining link to both my mother and my grandfather. At the same time, if I didnt sell, I wasnt sure what Id do with it. I couldnt simply lock it upthe vagrant might break in again, right?but I wasnt sure I wanted to rent it, either, because I didnt want strangers messing with the peculiar charm of the place. In the room where Id slept as a kid, there were pencil marks on the closet door where my grandfather had duly etched my height next to those hed marked for my mother; the thought that someone might paint over that history wasnt something I wanted to contemplate. My condo in Pensacola had simply been a place where I lived; this house, my grandfathers house, carried the ghosts of meaningful memory; it was a place where the past continued to whisper, as long as I was willing to hear it. Knowing I had a lot to do, I went for a halfway decent run, showered, and poured myself a cup of coffee. At the table, I went through the documents from my accountants. As always, there was a cover letter that explained everything I needed to know, and little stickers on various forms indicating where I needed to sign. My eyes began glazing over at the thirty-second mark, which was normal, and I finished two additional cups of coffee before finally sliding the various documents into the appropriate preaddressed envelopes. By midmorning, I stood in line at the post office, making sure everything was postmarked, before heading back to the house and writing an email to my accountants, letting them know the deed was done. Next on the to-do list were the beehives. After donning the same suit Id worn the day before, I loaded the wheelbarrow with the equipment I needed, then collected a few shallow supers, along with some queen excluders. I hoped that I wasnt too late. Without the queen excluder, the queen might suddenly fly off in search of a new hive, taking her swarm with her. That was what had happened in Brazil in 1957 after scientists bred Africanized honey bees, aka killer bees, thinking they would thrive in the tropical conditions. A visiting beekeeper, believing the queen excluders were hindering the movement of the bees inside the hives, removed them, and twenty-six queens as well as their swarms escaped, traveling north, eventually reaching the US. I pushed the wheelbarrow along the same path Id used the day before, intending to work from left to right. As I got settled in place, I glanced toward the road and saw Callie walking, most likely on her way to the Trading Post. Like the other times Id seen her walking, her head was bowed and she shuffled along with what seemed to be grim determination. Wandering toward the edge of the property, I held up a hand in greeting. Off to work? My sudden appearance must have startled her and she stopped. You again. They were the same words Natalie had said to me at the park by the river, and I was struck by the notion that Callie was equally mysterious and guarded. Its me, I said. Then, realizing I was wearing the suit, I motioned toward the hives. I have to do some work on the hives so the bees stay happy. She continued to eye me almost warily. When she crossed her arms, I noticed a bruise near her elbow. Theyre bees. Cant they take care of themselves? Youre right, I admitted. Theyre not like Termite in that you have to feed them, but they still need a little tending now and then. Do they like you? Who? The bees? Yes, the bees. I dont know. They seem okay with me. Youre wearing a suit. I never saw your grampa wear a suit. When I walked past here, I mean. He was braver than I am. For the first time since Id seen her, she cracked the slightest of smiles. What did you want? Nothing. I saw you walking past and thought Id say hello. Why? Why? I hadnt expected the question and for a moment, I couldnt think of a response. Just being neighborly, I suppose. She seemed to stare right through me. Were not neighbors, she said. I live a ways down the road. Youre right, I said. I have to go, she said. I dont want to be late for work. Fair enough. I dont want you to be late, either. Then why did you stop me to talk to you? I thought Id answered that with the whole being neighborly thing, but I guess to her mind, I hadnt. But feeling as though she wanted to end the conversation sooner rather than lateragain, like Natalie at the farmers market, which made me think how similar they were in temperamentI took a step backward toward the wheelbarrow. No reason, I said. Have a great day. She waited until Id retreated a few steps before starting to walk again. And though I didnt turn around to check, I was certain she didnt cast so much as a single glance my way. Not that it was any of my business. I put on the hood and gloves, then moved the wheelbarrow closer to the first of the hives. I got the smoker going, puffed enough to calm the hive, and waited another minute before removing both lids. I added the excluder to the top of the upper deep, put the shallow upper super on top of that, and put the lids back on. Same things with the second, third, and fourth hives. I refilled the wheelbarrow multiple times, lost in the routine and remembering my grandfather, until all the hives were done. Fortunately, all the queens were still in placeeating food and laying eggs, doing their thingand I was able to finish in under three hours. By then, it was coming up on lunch, and thinking my morning had already been exceedingly productive, I treated myself to a beer with my sandwich. Sometimes, it just hits the spot. Know what I mean? * * * After lunch, there were two more things on my agenda, both of which I considered important for my own peace of mind. Natalie had been right about the possibility of finding answers in my grandfathers truck. She was also smart to suggest that I call the hospital first. For all I knew, my grandfather had been transported from another county. I found the phone number on the internet and spoke to an older lady with an accent so thick it could have been bottled, who had absolutely no idea how to help. After hemming and hawing for a couple of minutesin addition to her drawl, she spoke incredibly slowlyshe finally landed on the name of one of the hospital administrators and offered to connect me. While she was doing so, unfortunately, I was cut off. I called again, asked for the appropriate name, and then was connected to voicemail. I left my name, number, a brief message, and asked him to return my call. Maybe because of the experience Id had with the first lady, I wasnt all that certain Id receive a call back. Even so, I felt like Id just taken the first step on a journey to find the answers I needed. * * * In the various phases of my lifehigh school, Annapolis, medical school, residency, and the NavyI became friends with some extraordinary people. In each of those phases, I became particularly close to a small circle of individuals, and I simply assumed that I would remain close with them forever. Because we were hanging out then, my thinking went, wed hang out forever. But friendships, Ive learned, arent like that. Things change; people change. Friends mature and move and get married and have children; others become doctors and deploy to Afghanistan and have their careers blown up. Over time, if youre lucky, a fewor maybe just a coupleremain from each of the various phases of your life. Ive been fortunate; I have friends who date back to high school, and yet, I sometimes find myself wondering why some people remain in your life while others drift away. I dont have the answer to that, other than to observe that friendship has to flow both ways. Both of you have to be willing to invest in the friendship in order to maintain it. I mention this because I sometimes wonder whether to consider Dr. Bowen a friend. In some ways, he is. We speak every week and he knows me better than anyone. Hes the only person who knows how much I actually used to contemplate suicide after my injuriesdaily, if youre curiousand hes the only one who knows that I feel very low every year on the day my parents plane crashed. He knows how much sleep I get, how many beers I drink in the course of a week, and how hard it used to be for me to control my anger in situations where I should have simply rolled my eyes and gone on with life. Once, about nine months ago, I was standing in the checkout line at Home Depot when the next aisle opened up. The clerk there said he could help the next person in line, which was me, but the man behind me rushed over instead, taking what was rightfully my place. No big deal, right? Maybe an irritation, but what was really at stake? A few minutes? On a day when I wasnt really doing anything at all? The point is that it shouldnt have bothered me, but it did. I was bothered, then angry, and then, as the emotion continued to build, enraged. I stared at the back of his head with death rays, and I ended up walking out the door less than half a minute behind him. Watching him in the parking lot, I had to fight the visceral urge to chase after him and tackle him to the ground. I imagined pummeling him with my fists, even if I could make a fist with only one of my hands; I imagined driving a knee into his kidneys or his stomach; I visualized ripping his ear off, just as Id lost mine. My jaw was set, my body bracing for confrontation as I began to walk faster when all of a sudden, it dawned on me that I was experiencing a symptom of PTSD, one that Bowen had repeatedly warned me about. Id been in therapy for a while by then, and like a steady voice of reason amid an orchestra of emotional noise, Bowen was telling me what to do, telling me to change my behavior. Stop and turn away. Force yourself to smile and relax the muscles. Take five long breaths. Feel the emotion, and then let it go, watching as it dissipates. Weigh the pros and cons regarding the action you want to take. Check the facts and realize that in the broad scheme of things, what really happened doesnt matter at all. When my anger finally dissipated to a manageable level, I was able to drive home. Days later, I poured the whole story out to my doctor, but in the following months, I told none of my friends. Nor did I tell my friends about the nightmares and the insomnia or anything else that was making my life a trial. And I wondered: Why can I tell Dr. Bowen, but not the people I consider friends? I suppose it has to do with fear: fear of rejection, fear of disappointing others, fear of their anger or their judgment. This says more about me than it does them, but I dont feel this way when I speak with Dr. Bowen. Im not sure why. Maybe it has something to do with the simple fact that I pay him. Or maybe it has to do with the idea that, for all our conversations, I know little about him. In that way, were not friends at all. Because he wears a wedding ring, I assume hes married, but I have no idea who his wife is, or how long theyve been married, or anything else about his wife at all. I dont know whether he has children. From the diplomas on the wall of his office, I know he went to Princeton as an undergraduate and Northwestern for medical school. But I dont know his hobbies, or the kind of house he lives in, the food he likes, or any books or movies that he may have enjoyed. In other words, were friends, but really, were not. Hes just my therapist. Eyeing the clock, I saw it was almost time for our weekly call, so after rinsing my dishes in the sink, I propped open the back door for some fresh air and put the computer on the kitchen table. Dr. Bowen liked to see my eyes when we spoke, so he could tell whether I was lying or hiding something important. On my end, it was a lot easier than meeting him in person, and I had easy access to the bathroom if I had to go. No reason to put the session on hold, no matter what. I could just carry the computer with me while I did my business. Kidding. At the top of the hour, I logged into Skype and it automatically dialed the number. When the connection was made, Dr. Bowen popped into view. As usual, he was at his desk in the office, a place Id visited more times than I could count. Slightly balding with round, wire-rim glasses that made him look more like a professor of mathematics than a psychiatrist, he was, I guessed, about a decade and a half older than I was. Whats up, Doc? Hello, Trevor. How are you? Im fine, thank you. How are you? When I asked, it was simply part of a greeting. When he asked, he actually meant it. I think Im doing well, I answered. No nightmares, no insomnia, sleeping well. I had one or two beers on four different days last week. I worked out five times. No episodes of anger or anxiety or depression in the last week. Still working the CBT and DBT skills whenever I feel like I need them. Great. He nodded. Sounds very healthy. He paused. Bowen did that a lot. Pause, I mean. Should we keep talking? I finally asked. Would you like to keep speaking? Are you going to charge me? Yes. Oh, Ive got a new joke, I said. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? I dont know. Only one. But the lightbulb has to really want to change. He laughed, just as I knew he would. Bowen laughs at all my jokes, but then he gets quiet again. Hes told me that jokes might be my way of keeping people at a distance. Anyway, I began, and proceeded to catch him up on the basic goings-on in my life in the past week. When Id first started therapy, I wondered how any of this could possibly be useful; Id learned over time that it allowed Bowen to have a better idea about the stress I was under at any given time, which was important in my management of PTSD. Add too much stress, remove the skills and healthy behaviors, and its either kaboom, like I felt toward the Home Depot guy, or way too much drinking and Grand Theft Auto. So I talked. I told him that Id been missing my grandfather and my parents more than usual since Id last spoken to him. He responded that my feelings were entirely understandablethat checking the hives and fixing the engine on the boat would likely have triggered a mix of nostalgia and feelings of loss for just about anyone. I mentioned that I was nearly certain that someone had broken into the house and had lived there. When he asked if I felt violated or bothered by that, I said that it was more curious than bothersome, since aside from the back door, thered been no damage and nothing had been stolen. I also mentioned the things Claude had said about my grandfather, andas we had so often of latewe spoke about my grandfathers last words and my ongoing confusion about them. It still troubles you, he observed. Yes, I admitted. It doesnt make sense. Because he told you to go to hell? Dr. Bowen, like Natalie, seemed to remember everything. It wasnt like him to say something like that, I insisted. Maybe you misunderstood. Bowen had suggested this before. As I had in the past, I dismissed it. Im sure he said it. But he also said that he loved you, correct? Yes. And you indicated that hed had a major stroke? And was on a lot of medication and was quite possibly confused? Yes. And that it took nearly a day for him to be able to speak any words at all? Yes. When I said nothing else, he finished with the same question that continued to plague me. Yet you still feel he was trying to communicate something important. On the monitor, Bowen was watching me. I nodded but said nothing. You do realize, he offered, that you may never understand what that might be? He meant the world to me. He sounds like a profoundly decent man. I looked away. Through the open door, the creek was black and ancient in the soft Southern light. I should have been there, I muttered. I should have gone with him. If I had, maybe he wouldnt have had the stroke. Maybe the drive was too much for him. Maybe, Bowen said. Or maybe not. Theres no way to know for sure. And while it may be normal to feel guilty, its also important to remember that guilt is simply an emotion, and like all emotions, it will eventually pass. Unless you choose to hold on to it. I know, I said. Hed said this to me before. While I accepted the truth of it, it sometimes struck me that my emotions didnt care. AnywayNatalie said that I might find some answers in his truck. As to the reason he was in South Carolina, I mean. So Ive begun the process of trying to find out where the truck is. Natalie? he asked. Shes a deputy sheriff here in town, I began, then went on to tell him how wed met, and a little about our conversations at the park, at the house, and then finally at dinner. Youve spent quite a bit of time together since we last spoke, he responded. She wanted to see the beehives. Ah, he said, and because wed spoken so frequently, I knew exactly what he was thinking. Yes, I said, shes attractive. And intelligent. And yes, I enjoyed our time together. However, Im not sure how Natalie feels about me, which means theres not much else to add. All right, he said. Im serious, I insisted. And besides, I suspect Natalie might be dating someone else. Im not sure about that, but there are signs. I understand, he said. Then why does it sound like you dont believe me? I believe you, he said. I simply find it interesting. Whats interesting? Natalie is the first woman youve spoken to me about since you broke up with Sandra. Thats not true, I said. I told you about Yoga Girl. She was a woman Id gone out with twice the previous fall, right around the time Id been accepted into the residency program. Wed had a couple of pleasant evenings, but both of us knew by the end of the second date that it wasnt going to work between us. I watched as he pushed his glasses up on his nose. I remember, he finally said, his voice coming out with a sigh. And do you know what you called her? When you first mentioned her to me? I cant say that I do, I admitted. I also tried to remember her name. Lisa? Elisa? Elise? Something like that. You called her Yoga Girl, he said. You didnt use her name. Im sure I told you her name, I protested. Actually, you didnt, he said. At the time, I found that interesting, too. What are you trying to say? That you think I might be falling for someone in local law enforcement? The corners of his mouth turned up slightly as we both noted the fact Id suddenly avoided her name. I have no idea, he went on. And thats not really for me to say one way or the other. I dont even know if Ill see her again. The time on my computer showed, amazingly, that nearly an hour had already passed and that our session was about to come to an end. Speaking of seeing each other, he added, I wanted to let you know that its possible we could meet in person next week. Unless youd prefer to continue communicating electronically. You think I need to travel to Pensacola? No, not at all. Perhaps I should have been clearer. Theres a conference at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville concerning PTSD. One of the speakers, unfortunately, had to cancel and I was asked to fill in. Its on Tuesday, but I have to fly up Monday. If youd like, we could meet in Jacksonville, or I could come to New Bern, if thats easier. That would be great, I said. What time? Same time? he asked. I can catch a morning flight and rent a car. Are you sure its not too far out of the way? Not at all. Im looking forward to visiting your grandfathers place. Youve painted quite a picture for me. I smiled, thinking that even if I had, I still hadnt done it justice. Ill see you next week, Doc. Do you need directions? Im sure Ill be able find it. Take care. * * * Two hours later, my cell phone rang. Though I didnt recognize the number, the area code was from upstate South Carolina. The hospital administrator? Trevor Benson, I answered. Hi. This is Thomas King from Baptist Easley Hospital. I received your message, but I wasnt exactly sure what information you needed. Unlike the receptionist, his accent wasnt nearly as thick or hard to understand. Thank you for returning my call, I started, before laying out the situation. When I finished, he asked me to hold for a moment. It was way longer than a moment. I listened to Muzak for at least five minutes before I heard the phone click through to him. I apologize that it took so long, but I had to find out who to ask, and then find the information you needed. We generally use two ambulance services, he explained before giving me their names. As I wrote them down, he went on. Unfortunately, we dont have the particulars regarding your grandfather. I suppose your best bet is to call the ambulance services. Perhaps theyll have the information you need. Im sure theyre required to keep records. It was just as Natalie had suggested. I appreciate your help, I said. This is more than helpful. Youre welcome. And my condolences for the passing of your grandfather. Thank you, I said. I hung up, thinking that Id call the ambulance companies in the morning. I wished I had thought about it when my grandfather had been in the hospital; after nearly half a year, who knew how long it might take them to find the answers I needed. My thoughts turned to Natalie. Since my call with Bowen, images of her kept resurfacing in my mind; I saw her expression of wonder as she watched the bee crawl over her finger, the sensuous swirling of her dress outlining her long legs and the graceful lines of her body as she stepped out of her car in Beaufort. I recalled both our heartfelt discussion and the easy banter between us, and I puzzled over the flash of sadness I thought Id sensed toward the end of our dinner. I thought about the energy between us and knew exactly why Id called her by her name when speaking with Bowen. As much as Id tried to downplay it with Dr. Bowen, I knew with certainty that I wanted to see her again, sooner rather than later. * * * After Id had dinner, I resolved to finally get some reading done on the back porch. But figuring that Natalie would have finished her shift some time ago, I found myself reaching for my cell phone. I debated calling but decided against it. Instead, I typed out a quick text. I was just thinking about you and hope you had a good day. Are you free for dinner this weekend? Though I should have set my phone aside, I waited to see if she was near enough to her phone to read the text right away. Sure enough, I saw the indication that shed read the text and assumed she would write something back. Instead, there was no response at all. For the rest of the evening, I continued to check my phone. Childish. Compulsive. Maybe immature. At times, I can be all those things. Like Bowen says, were all works in progress. Finally, just as I was getting ready to turn in for the night, I heard the telltale ding of my cell phone. Thanks. Typical day. Nothing special. I stared at the screen, thinking it didnt exactly proclaim an undeniable passion and attraction toward me, especially since she hadnt addressed my invitation at all. I put the phone on the bedside table, feelingconfused? hurt?before reaching for the lamp. I shook those feelings aside, knowing it was way too early to feel either of those things. Besides, if she hadnt wanted to speak with me again, she wouldnt have answered at all. Right? I turned out the light, then adjusted the covers, when I heard my cell phone suddenly ding again. I reached for the phone. Ill think about it. Not a yes, but not a no, either. I continued to stare at the screen until it vibrated again with another message from her. :-) I smiled. Clasping my hands behind my head, I stared at the ceiling, more curious about her than ever. Chapter 8 I didnt hear from Natalie on Tuesday, which disappointed me, but my offer was out there. I knew she was working and busy, and I had things to do as well. Well, sort of. But I didnt text her. It wasnt as though I was thinking about her all the time. Justtoo much for my own good. I also spoke to both ambulance companies. As with the hospital, it took a couple of transfers before I was able to reach someone who could help. Yes, I was told, there were records of pickup locations for patients who had been transported to the hospital; no, I was told, they didnt have that information readily available. It would take them a few days to find it, maybe until the end of the week, and if I didnt hear from them to call again. Hurry up and wait. Just like so many other things in life. * * * Hoping for a chance to speak with Claudes father, I decided to visit the Trading Post for lunch. Pulling up, I spotted a bin offering bags of ice, firewood for sale, propane tank refills, an air compressor to fill tires, and an old-fashioned vending machine, which seemed redundant since people could purchase sodas inside. Unfortunately, there was no one out front in the rockers. Inside, Claude was back at his usual spot behind the register and he raised a hand in greeting as I headed toward the grill. As usual, all the tables were occupied, so I found myself at the counter. A massive manat least a head taller than me and twice as widenodded toward me before handing me a small bowl of boiled peanuts. I assumed this was Frank, the regular grill man. Unlike Claude, he said nothing. Not much of a chatter, which was fine with me. In honor of my grandfather, I ordered a BLT with fries and a pickle. Behind me, I overheard two guys at one of the tables talking about their fishing trip the weekend before, lamenting their lack of luck, and debating better places to try the following weekend. I peeked over my shoulder. Both were wearing baseball caps; one had the sinewy arms associated with construction, while the other wore a uniform of one of the propane distributors. When one of them mentioned that hed spotted an alligator recently, my ears perked up. Four of em actually, he went on. Sunnin right there on the bank between the trees. Big ones? his friend asked. Nah. Juveniles, probably. Where? You know where the boat launch is? A couple of bends in the river after that, on your right. You remember the bald eagles nest in the cypress tree? Right around there. What eagles nest? Same nest as last year. I didnt see it last year. Thats because you never take the time to look around. Im fishing, he answered, not sightseeing. You try the quarry? Ive had some luck with bass there lately The conversation returned to fishing again and I found myself tuning out. I was, however, interested in the alligators and the bald eagles and wondered if Natalie might want to join me. By then, my meal was ready, and Frank placed the plate in front of me. I took a bite, confirming that it never tasted as good anywhere else. I finished the sandwich and the pickle, but had only a few of the fries. I could feel my arteries hardening as I sampled them, but my taste buds were happy. As I was finishing up, I glanced through the windows toward the front of the store and saw a pair of elderly gentlemen sitting in the rockers on the porch. Just what Id been hoping for. Rising from my seat, I approached the register. Claude, without the apron and shiny face, seemed far more content than he was the last time Id been here. Hey, Claude, I greeted him. Is that your father out front? He leaned forward to peek over my shoulder. Yeah, thats him. The one with the overalls. The other guy is Jerrold. Do you think your dad would mind if I spoke with him about my grandfather? Feel free. Cant guarantee hell know anything. Assuming he even hears what youre asking. Of course. Word of advice? Watch out for Jerrold. Half the time, I have no idea what hes talking about or what he finds so funny. I wasnt sure what he meant exactly but I nodded. How long do you think your father will be here? They havent eaten yet, so I reckon hell be here at least another hour. What does he usually have for lunch? The barbecue sandwich with slaw. And hush puppies. How about I buy that for him? Why? Its not like I can charge him. He still owns a portion of the store. I figure if Im going to try to get some information from him, its the least I can do. Its your money. He shrugged. I pulled some cash from my wallet and handed it over, watching as he added it to the drawer. He cupped a hand at the corner of his mouth and called across the store. Hey, Frank. Get Daddy the usual, okay? And hand it to Trevor here. Hell bring it out. The meal didnt take long to prepare and when it was ready, I ferried the plate to the front door. As I passed the register, Claude loosened the cap on a Yoo-hoo, then tightened it slightly before holding it out to me. Youll need this, too. Yoo-hoo? Its his favorite. Hes been drinking it as long as I can remember. I took the bottle and with my hands full, I used my hips to push open the door. As I approached, Jim looked up, his face as gnarled and wrinkled as his hands, all bone and skin and liver spots. He wore glasses and a few of his teeth were missing, but I thought I saw a spark of curiosity in his expression that made me believe he was sharper, and more aware, than Claudes description of him might indicate. Then again, maybe I was just being optimistic. Hi, Jim. I thought Id bring out your lunch, I started. I was hoping to talk to you for a few minutes. Jim squinted up at me. Huh? Jerrold leaned toward Jim. Boy here wants to talk to you, Jerrold shouted. Talk about what? Jim asked. How the hell should I know? He just walked out here. Who is he? Jim asked. Jerrold swiveled his gaze toward me. He was younger than Jim, but still well past retirement age. I noticed a hearing aid, which mightor might notmake things easier. He leaned toward Jim again. Im figurin hes a salesman, Jerrold shouted. Maybe selling them womens panties. I blinked, unsure whether to be offended, and suddenly remembered what Claude had told me. Tell him to talk to Claude, Jim said with a wave. Im retired. I dont need nothing from any salesman. The hell you dont, Jerrold said to him. You need a woman and one of them winning lotto tickets, if you ask me. Huh? Jerrold leaned back in his seat with mirth in his eyes. Womens panties. He cackled, clearly pleased with himself. You sellin womens panties? No, I said, Im not a salesman. I just wanted to speak with Jim. About what? About my grandfather, I said. And I brought Jim his lunch. Then dont just stand there. He waved a bony hand at me. Give it to him. Dont be slow, now. I leaned down and handed Jim his lunch. As I did, Jerrold frowned, the grooves in his forehead so deep they could hold a pencil. Wheres my lunch? Jerrold demanded. I hadnt expected the question but realized that I probably should have considered the idea theyd want to eat together. Im sorry. I wasnt thinking. What would you like? Id be happy to get you something. Hmmmm, Jerrold said, bringing a hand to his chin. How about filet mignon with a lobster tail and lots of butter, with some of that rice pilaf? Hed pronounced it pea-laff. Do they serve that here? I asked. Of course they dont. You need to order it special, from one of them fancy places. I assumed he meant a different restauranta real restaurantand I was caught off guard. Where would I order that? I asked. Whats he saying? Jim asked. Jerrold leaned toward Jim again. Hes saying he wont buy me lunch, Jerrold shouted. And he says hell buy you a Cadillac if youll talk to him. I blinked, wondering how Id lost control of the conversation. A Cadillac? Where did that come from? I didnt say that, I protested. And Id be glad to get you anything the grill offers Jerrold slapped his thigh, not letting me finish before suddenly locking eyes with me again. Boy, you is dumb as dirt. A Cadillac! What on earth would he do with a Cadillac? He can barely drive as it is. He shook his head, cackling. A Cadillac! he shouted to Jim. Standing in place, I could think of nothing to say. Jerrold didnt seem to need me to say anything; he was too happy with himself to care what I might be thinking. Jim, meanwhile, struck me as oblivious. I decided to seize the initiative. I was hoping to ask Jim about my grandfather, Carl Haverson. Jerrold reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag of snuff. After opening the package, he pinched a few of the leaves together before placing them between his lip and gum. His mouth made a few contortions and he settled back in the chair, looking like he had a tumorous growth in his jaw. Youre telling me that youre kin to Carl? He was my grandfather, I said again. Im trying to learn what he was doing in South Carolina. Claude said Jim and my grandfather were close and I was hoping he could answer some questions. Might be hard, Jerrold said. Jim here, he dont hear too well. And he wanders when he talks. Half the time, you dont know what he means. I could say the same about you, I thought. Its important, I said instead. Maybe you can help? Dont know how. Did you know my grandfather? Did you speak with him before he left? Sure, he drawled. I got out here now and then and wed talk. Not as much as Jim here, though. But then, one week, he wasnt around, so it was just me and Jim. I was as surprised as anyone when I found out what happened to him. Carl was in good health as far as I knew. How about the trip to South Carolina? Did you know anything about that? He never mentioned anything about it to me. Was he acting differently? Anything like that? Jerrold shook his head. Not that I could tell. I rocked back on my heels, wondering if I was wasting my time. Surprising me, Jerrold slowly rose from the chair. He had to grip both arms and moving into the vertical position seemed both laborious and painful. You two go ahead and visit, he said. Maybe Jim knows something I dont. He knew Carl better than I did. But talk loud, toward his right ear. It barely works, but dont even bother trying with the left one. You dont have to leave, I said. Youll need my chair. He wont admit it, but he needs to be able to see your lips moving so he can figure out what youre saying. Hell get about half of what you say, so just keep trying. Where are you going? Jim said. Im hungry, Jerrold shouted. I want some food. Huh? Jerrold waved him off and looked toward me. Dont just stand there looking dumb as a tree. Take a seat. Ill be back. I watched as Jerrold shuffled toward the door, and when he was safely inside, I sat in the same rocker, then leaned forward as Jerrold had done. Hi, I shouted. Im Trevor Benson. River fencing? Trevor Benson, I said again. Im Carls grandkid. Who? Carl! I said even louder, wondering if I should have kept Jerrold around to translate. Oh, Carl, Jim said. He passed on. I know. He was my kin, I said, hoping Jerrolds phrasing would help. Jim squinted at me and I could tell he was searching. It took a few beats. The Navy doc? You were married to Claire, right? Yes, I said, even though Claire had been my mother. No reason to make it any more complicated than it already was. He sure liked those bees, old Carl, Jim added. Had them a long time. Beehives. For the honey. Yes. I nodded. I wanted to speak to you about Carl. I dont much like bees, he said. Never could figure out what he saw in em. Trying to keep it simple, I opted for the direct approach. I have some questions that I was hoping you could answer. Jim didnt seem to hear me. Carl had a hard time with the honey last summer, Jim said. Arthritis. He pronounced it arthur-itis. He probably did He got help from the girl, though, Jim added, not hearing me. Girl? Yeah, Jim said. The girl. Inside. Okay, I said, wondering what he was talking about. I hadnt seen any girls in the store today, but Claude had warned me his mind wandered. Leaving that behind, I leaned closer, speaking slowly and replicating Jerrolds volume. Do you know why Carl went to South Carolina? Carl died in South Carolina. I know, I said. Do you know why Carl went to South Carolina? I asked again. Jim took a bite of his sandwich and chewed slowly before answering. I reckon he was going to visit Helen. For a second, I wondered if hed understood my question. Helen? He was going to visit Helen? I shouted. Yep. Helen. Thats what he told me. Or was that what Jim had heard? How much could I trust his hearing? Or the competence of his memory? I wasnt sure. When did he tell you about Helen? Huh? I repeated the question, even louder this time, and Jim reached for a hush puppy. He took a bite and it took him a long time to finally swallow. I reckon about a week or so before he left. He was working on the truck. To make sure it could get there, no doubt, butwho was Helen? How would my grandfather have met a woman from South Carolina? He had neither a computer nor a cell phone, and he rarely left New Bern. It didnt add up How did Carl meet Helen? Huh? Helen. I reckon thats what he said. Did Helen live in Easley? Whats Easley? The town in South Carolina. He picked up another hush puppy. Dont know much about South Carolina. I was stationed there during the Korean War, but said good riddance as soon as I got out. Too hot, too far from home. The drill sergeant thereoh what was his nameR-somethinglike a joke As he was searching the past, I tried to figure out what hed told me, assuming Jim wasnt completely bonkers. A woman named Helen was in Easley and my grandfather had gone to visit her? Riddle! Jim suddenly shouted. Thats his name. Sergeant Riddle. Meanest, orneriest man there ever was. One time, he made us sleep in the bog. Dank and dirty place, and so many mosquitoes. They bit all night till I swelled up like a tick. Had to go to the infirmary. Did you ever meet Helen? Nope. He reached for his Yoo-hoo but even though Claude had loosened the cap, he struggled to open it. I watched as he took a drink, still trying to sort it out, but suspecting he had nothing else to offer. Okay, I said. Thank you. He lowered the bottle. The girl might know more about it. It took me a second to recall what hed said earlier. The girl inside? He motioned with the bottle toward the window. Cant remember her name. He liked her. Helen? No. The one inside. Ill admit I was completely lost by then and as if on cue, Jerrold pushed out the door, carrying a plate similar to the one Id brought out to Jim. Eastern North Carolina barbecue, which is flavored with vinegar and red pepper flakes, is different from barbecue anywhere else in the world. When Jerrold was close, I stood from the chair, making room. You two about done? he asked. I thought about it, wondering what if anything Id learned, or how much of it was even real. Yes, I said, I think were through. I warned you, he can wander a bit when he talks, Jerrold admitted. Did you get the answers you needed? Im not sure, I said. He said my grandfather was going to visit Helen. And he mentioned something about a girl inside, but I have no idea what he was talking about. I think I might have part of the answer to that. What part? The girl inside, Jerrold said. He was talking about Callie. She and your grandfather were pretty close. * * * Claude was still at the register when I reentered the store. There were a handful of customers in line and I waited until he finished before approaching. Howd it go? he asked. Still trying to figure it out, I said. Do you know when Callie will be working again? Shes here now, Claude answered. But shes on break. She should be back in a few minutes. Which explains why I hadnt noticed her earlier. Do you know where she is? If shes not feeding the cat, she usually eats at the picnic table down by the dock, Claude said. Thanks, I said, pushing back out the door again. Figuring it would be easier to talk while she wasnt on the clock, I rounded the side of the store, to a path that led toward the creek. I knew there was not only a picnic table there, but also some gas pumps near the waters edge where boats could fill their tanks. Id been there with my grandfather numerous times. The path wound through some trees and shrubbery, but when the view finally cleared, I saw Callie sitting at the table. As I crossed the grass, I noted the basic lunch shed clearly brought from home. Peanut butter and jelly sandwich, container of milk, and an applemost of it nearly finishedin a brown bag. Hearing me approach, she glanced in my direction, then back to the creek again. Callie? I asked when I was close. Claude told me that I might find you here. She turned her attention back to me, her expression wary. I wondered why she wasnt in school, and noticed another bruise on her arm, close to the one Id seen when shed walked past my house. Instead of speaking, she took another bite of her sandwich, nearly finishing it. Remembering her general wariness, I stopped just short of the table, not wanting to crowd her. I was hoping to speak with you about my grandfather, I said. I heard that you helped him harvest the honey last summer. Who told you that? Does it matter? I didnt do anything wrong, she said. Her comment caught me off guard. Im not implying that you did. Im just trying to figure out why he went to South Carolina. Why would you think I know anything about that? I was told that the two of you were close. Standing from the table, she shoved the last of her sandwich into her mouth and followed it with a final gulp of milk before stuffing the remains of her lunch into the bag. I really cant talk right now. I have to get back to work and I cant be late. I understand, I said. And Im not trying to get you in trouble. Like I said, Im just trying to figure out what happened to my grandfather. I dont know anything, she repeated. Did you help him harvest the honey? He paid me, she said, color rising like a stain in her pale cheeks. I didnt steal any, if thats what youre asking. I didnt steal anything. Im sure you didnt. Why didnt you tell me that you knew him as well as you did? I dont know you or anything about you. You knew I was related to him. So? Callie I didnt do anything wrong! she cried again, cutting me off. I was walking by and he saw me and he asked if I wanted to help him with the honey, so I did. It only took a couple of days and after that, I put the labels on and stacked them on the shelves. Then he paid me. Thats it. I tried to imagine my grandfather asking her on a whim for help with the harvest, but for whatever reason, I couldnt. And based on the conversations wed had to this point, I couldnt imagine her agreeing to such a thing, either. At the same time, there was some truth there; she had, by her own admission, helped him harvest the honey. What, I wondered, was she not telling me? Did he ever mention that he was going to visit Helen? Her eyes suddenly widened and for the first time, I thought I saw a flash of actual fear. As quickly as it came, however, it vanished with an angry shake of her head. Im sorry about your grandfather, okay? He was a nice old man. And I was happy to help him with the honey. But I dont know anything about why he went to South Carolina, and Id appreciate it if you just left me alone. I said nothing. She lifted her chin defiantly, before finally turning around and heading back toward the store. On her way, she tossed the remains of her lunch into a garbage can without breaking stride. I watched her leave, wondering what it was that Id said that had upset her so. * * * Back at home, I considered what, if anything, Id actually learned. Could I trust what Jim had told me? Or Jerrold? Had my grandfather gone to Easley because of a woman named Helen? And what was I to make of my conversation with Callie? What had I said to make her believe she was in trouble? I didnt know. And yet, as I continued to reflect on my encounter with Callie, I had the gnawing sensation that shed said somethingor Id seen somethingimportant. It was the answer to one of my many questions, but the harder I tried to zero in on it, the hazier my thoughts became. It felt like I was trying to grab a handful of smoke. Chapter 9 On Wednesday, while pondering my maybe-but-not-guaranteed date with Natalie, I decided to take my grandfathers boat out to try to find the alligators and bald eagles Id heard about the day before. I made a quick inspection before untying the lines and starting the motor. There were no other boats in the vicinity, which was fortunate, because I would need to get used to the steering again. I had no desire to participate in a water-based demolition derby or accidentally run aground, so I gently eased the throttle, turning the wheel as I pulled away from the dock. To my surprise, the boat was a lot easier to maneuver than I remembered, which meant my grandfather must have done some work on it, and I was quickly able to get it headed in the proper direction like the highly skilled Naval Academy graduate that I was supposed to be. As a kid, I always loved going out with my grandfather on the boat, but unlike most people, who preferred the wider Trent and Neuse Rivers, I always favored Brices Creek. Because the creek wound its way through the Croatan National Forest, it probably hadnt changed since settlers first arrived in the area in the early 1700s. In a way, it felt like traveling back in time, and when my grandfather shut down the engine, we would hear nothing but birdcalls from the trees, while every now and then a fish would jump, making ripples on the otherwise black and silent water. I settled into the ride, keeping to the middle of the creek. As ugly as it was, the ride itself was surprisingly stable. My grandfather had built the boat the way he had because Rose was afraid of the water. As an epileptic whose seizures grew in frequency and intensity as shed aged, shed never learned to swim, so hed designed something impossible to capsize or sink, with rails to keep her from falling overboard. Even then, it usually took some convincing for Rose to accompany him, so my grandfather often went alone, at least until my mom was old enough to join him. When I began spending my summers with him, we spent almost every afternoon on the water. Boating always seemed to put my grandfather in a contemplative mood. Sometimes, he would tell stories about his childhood, which was far more interesting than my own, or talk about bees or his work at the mill, or what my mom had been like as a child. Almost always, though, his thoughts would turn to Rose, melancholy settling over him like a familiar shawl. The older he got, the more he repeated himself, and by the time of my last visit, Id heard all of his stories often enough to recite them by heart. But I would listen without interruption, watching as he lost himself in the memories, because I knew how much shed meant to him. I had to admit, their story was charming; it harkened to a place and time I knew only from black-and-white movies, a world replete with dirt roads and homemade bamboo fishing poles and neighbors who sat on their front porches to beat the heat, waving to passersby. After the war, my grandfather had first spotted Rose having a soda with her friends outside the drugstore, and hed been so taken with her that he swore to his friends that hed seen the woman he would one day marry. After that, he saw Rose everywhere, outside Christ Episcopal Church with her mother or strolling through the Piggly Wiggly, and she began to notice him as well. Later in the summer, at the county fair, there was a dance. Rose was there with her friends and though it took him most of the evening to work up the courage to cross the floor to ask her to dance, she told him that shed been waiting all night for him to do just that. They married less than six months later. They spent their honeymoon in Charleston before returning to New Bern to settle into their life together. He built the house, and both of them wanted a brood of children. However, perhaps because of Roses condition, one miscarriage followed another, five in total over an eight-year period. Just when theyd given up hope, my mother was conceived, and the pregnancy went the distance. They considered my mom a gift from God, and my grandfather swore that Rose had never been more beautiful than when he saw mother and daughter together, playing hopscotch or reading or even standing on the porch, shaking dirt from the rugs. Years later, when my mom went off to college on a full scholarship, my grandfather told me that he and Rose enjoyed a second honeymoon, one that lasted until their very last day together. Every morning, he would head out early to pick Rose a bouquet of flowers; she would make breakfast, and the two of them would eat together on the back porch, while watching the mist rise slowly from the water. He would kiss her before heading off to work and again when he returned at the end of the day; they held hands as they took their evening walk, as though touch could somehow make up for the lost hours theyd spent apart. My grandfather found her on the kitchen floor on a Saturday, after hed spent an afternoon building additional hives. He took her lifeless body in his arms and held her. He cried for more than an hour before finally calling the authorities. He was so destroyed that for the first time ever, my mom took a monthlong leave of absence from her practice and came down to stay with him. He spent part of the following year carving her headstone himself, and up until our last phone call, I knew he continued to visit her grave every single week. There was Rose and only Rose; hed always sworn no one could ever replace her. There was no reason to doubt him and I never did. Toward the end, my grandfather was more than ninety years old, with arthritis and a dying truck; he led a simple life that included tending to honey bees and tinkering with the boat, all the while cherishing the memories of a wife that he could never forget. I turned all these things over in my mind while my thoughts circled back to my conversation with Jim. I tried to reconcile Jims comments with the grandfather Id known but simply couldnt do it. Despite what Id been told, I knew with sudden certainty that my grandfather had never, nor would have ever, gone to South Carolina to visit a woman named Helen. * * * I continued upstream, motoring from one curve to the next, eventually reaching the public boat ramp in the Croatan National Forest. Interesting tidbit about the forest: Its one of the few places in the world where you can find Venus flytraps and other carnivorous plants growing in the wild. My grandfather used to bring me out to search for them. Somehow, despite constant poaching, theyre still relatively common. The boat ramp was one of the reference points Id overheard at the Trading Post. Supposedly, the eagles and alligators were a couple of curves farther upstream, but for all I knew, it might be zero or ten curves. The guys description had been a little vague, so I slowed the boat and scanned the trees on either side of the creek. The problem, I soon realized, was that I had no idea what I was supposed to look for. Technology, however, is a wonderful thing. Pulling out my phone, I did a quick internet search and was able to find images of bald eagles nests. To my eye, they looked like regular birds nests, only much larger, which made me feel foolish for not assuming that in the first place. In the end, I finally spotted it high in the branches of a cypress tree, a feat made even simpler by the fact that mama or papa eagle was sitting in the nest, while the mate perched in the limbs of a nearby tree. It wasnt two bends in the river past the boat ramp, by the way, but four. I stopped the boat and scanned the banks for the alligators but had less luck there. I did note a cleared and muddy spot with some telltale burrows, however. Having lived in Florida, Id seen them before. Unfortunately, no alligators were around, but alligators were territorial, which meant it was likely that theyd return. In the meantime, my gaze was drawn toward the bald eagles and I snapped some pics with my phone. With brown bodies and white heads, they looked just like the one on the Great Seal of the United States, my first sighting of them in the wild. It soon became rather boring, though. Aside from occasionally turning their heads, they didnt move much, and after a while, they were no more exciting to watch than the trees. I wondered if there were eggs in the nest, but I soon noticed a pair of baby eaglets. Every now and then, one or both of the little ones would poke up their heads and I had the urge to tell someone about it. Reaching for my phone again, I typed out a quick message to Natalie. Do you have time to chat later? Again, I found myself watching the phone to see if shed read it; to my surprise, her response came quickly: Ill probably have some time around 8. I smiled, thinking that things with Natalie were getting interesting. It wasnt exactly my grandfather and Rose, but definitely interesting. * * * There was still no word from the ambulance companies, but I figured that Id give them until Monday before I contacted them again. Despite that, the rest of my afternoon was productive, if you consider taking a long nap after a leisurely boat ride productive. For dinner, I decided to eat at Morgans Tavern. Located downtown, it was my kind of place: wood floors, lots of rustic brick, high-beamed ceilings, and an extensive menu. It was bustling, so I ended up sitting at one of the tables in the bar, but the service was quick and the food was tasty. A good place to kill time until I called Natalie. Not wanting to be too punctual, I dialed seven minutes after the hour. Perhaps not wanting to appear too eager, Natalie answered on the fourth ring. Oh, the silly games people play Hey there, I said. How was work? Fine, but Im glad Im on days for the next few weeks. Its hard for me to sleep when the sun is shining. My body just doesnt like it. You should do a residency. Then you never have to sleep at all. She giggled. Whats going on? Youll never guess where I went today, I said. You called because you want me to guess? No, I said. I went out on the creek today. On your grandfathers boat? I prefer to think of it as a yacht. Ah, she said, amusement in her voice. Why are you telling me this? Because I was hunting for alligators. Dont tell me you found one. I didnt, but Im pretty sure I know where to find them. I was thinking we might try to find them on Saturday. We could take the boat out, maybe follow that up with dinner at my place. How does that sound? A second of silence on the line. Then: Wont it be crowded on the water this weekend? Your grandfathers boat draws way too much interest from others, she didnt have to add, and Id prefer that no one else know Im spending time with you. Not where wed be going. Well be heading up the creek, probably in late afternoon. Its usually pretty quiet. And afterward, wed eat at my place. I can grill a mean steak. I dont eat red meat. Natalie, I was beginning to learn, seldom offered a simple yes or no, but I was growing used to it. I can grill seafood if youd prefer, I suggested. Seafoods okay, right? Yes. Then how about coming by around four thirty? Well spend a couple of hours on the boat, head back, fire up the grill. Maybe open a bottle of wine. And I promise that even if we dont find the alligators, youll see something pretty amazing. What is it? Its a surprise. What do you think? Four thirty? We could go earlier, but I wouldnt go later or well lose the daylight when were on the water. In the silence that followed, I tried and failed to imagine her as she was speaking. Where was she? In her kitchen? The family room? Her bedroom? Finally, I heard her voice again. All right, she said, still sounding hesitant. I guess I should drive to your place? If youd rather, I could pick you up. That wont be necessary, she said. Because you dont want me to know where you live? Great, I said, ignoring that internal query. A couple of questionsare you okay with tuna? Thats fine. And my odds that you show are better than fifty-fifty this time? Ha ha, she said. Ill be there at four thirty. Maybe I was just imagining it, but I think there was a little part of her that was flattered by my persistence. Good night, Trevor. Good night, Natalie. * * * On Thursday, I heard from the first of the ambulance companies, who let me know that they hadnt attended to or transported my grandfather. On Friday, I heard from the second one and struck pay dirt. After a brief conversation, I was emailed a scanned copy of the report. I read that my grandfather, Carl Haverson, had been picked up near mile marker 7 on Highway 123, and transported to Baptist Easley Hospital. Though light on details, the report showed that he was unconscious, with a thready pulse. Oxygen was administered en route, and he reached the hospital at 8:17 a.m. It wasnt much information and told me little that I didnt already know, other than the pickup location. A quick search on the internet, including Google Earth, showed a stretch of highway near a dilapidated strip mall, which didnt add any helpful information, primarily because I had no idea of what exactly had led to the call in the first place. He could have been walking to his truck or already driving or heading into a restaurant. I didnt know whod called the ambulance, or even what near mile marker 7 actually meant. Perhaps the only way to find the answers to any of these questions was to go there and check it out. But noting the time of his arrival triggered an additional thought, one that I should have realized before. Easley was at least six hours away by car; in my grandfathers truck, at his age, it might have taken him as long as nine hours to get there. Had he driven through the night? Try as I might, I couldnt imagine that. He was, and always had been, an early riser. In my minds eye, I could visualize him getting into the truck early in the morning, after sleeping in a hotel or motel Where, then, had he stayed the night? Near Easley? Farther east? Also, if hed been found near the truck, I knew there was no way it would still be sitting alongside the highway, not after six months. So how was I going to find it? I wrestled with the questions on and off the rest of the day, without answers. What I did finally come to accept, however, was that a road trip to Easley was in my very near future. To understand what had happened to my grandfather, I knew I had no choice but to go there. Chapter 10 Saturday felt like early summer, at least while I was out for my run. By the time I finished, I was able to wring the perspiration from my shirt before showering, which was kind of gross, but reminded me of the years Id actually been an athlete, as opposed to a guy who was simply trying to keep his pants from nipping at the waist. After breakfast, I cleaned the house again, paying special attention to the kitchen and bathrooms, then hauled the small dining room table and chairs out to the back porch. I rearranged the rockers, slid the grill to a new spot, and rifled through the cabinets and closets for a tablecloth and candles, doing my best to create a subtly romantic ambiance. Getting the boat ready was more of a chore. While I didnt care whether the recliners were ratty or moldy, I figured she might, and I had to run to the store to buy the cleanser I needed. After detouring to the grocery store, I then took the boat to the gas pumps at the Trading Post to fill the tank, but it took longer than expected due to the long line. Three different people whipped out their phones to take photographs of me while I was in the queue, being that I was so handsome and all. Then again, maybe they were more interested in the boat. Who knew? I set the table, added flowers from the front yard to the vase, put the bottles of wine in the refrigerator to chill, chopped vegetables, and tossed a salad. I loaded the cooler with ice, beer, soda, and bottles of water and ferried it to the boat, along with a snack platter. By that point, it was midafternoon; I tried and failed to remember the last time it had taken me so long to get ready for a date. I showered for the second time that day and considering the sultry temperature, my instincts told me that shorts and a T-shirt would be most appropriate for the boat. Instead, I opted for jeans, a blue button-up shirt, and Top-Siders. I rolled up my sleeves and hoped the breeze would keep me from sweating through my shirt. I should have listened to my instincts. Natalie showed up a few minutes later, stepping out of her car in jean shorts, sunglasses, sandals, and a Rolling Stones T-shirt, a casually sexy appearance that registered immediately. I swallowed hard. After collecting a medium-sized canvas bag from the passenger seat, she turned, stopping in her tracks when she saw me. I thought you said we were going on the boat. We are, I said. This is my captains uniform. Youre going to get hot Yes, I am, I thought, already feeling the sun beating down on me. Ill be fine Approaching her car, I was unsure whether to lean in for a hug or stand in place like an idiot. I opted for the latter. She acted equally uncertain, which made me wonder whether she was as nervous as I. I doubted it, but it still made me feel better. I wasnt sure if I should bring anything, she said, motioning to the car. But I have a small cooler in the back seat with drinks. I put some in the boat already, but Im happy to load what you brought just in case. Opening the back door, I retrieved the cooler. Hows your day been? she asked as we walked toward the house. Relaxing, I lied. You? Typical Saturday. Farmers market? Among other things. She shrugged. Do you really think well find an alligator? I hope so, I said. But no guarantees. If we do, itll still be a first. Thats always kind of exciting. Whats in your bag? Clothes for later, she said. I didnt want to get cold. Frankly, I would have been happy if she stayed in the outfit she was wearing, but I kept quiet. I pushed the front door open. Come on in. Feel free to leave your bag anywhere. How long do you think well be on the boat? Hard to say. But well definitely be back before dark. She dug out some sunscreen from her bag while following me through the house and onto the back porch. When she saw all Id done, she arched an eyebrow. Wow, she said. Youve been busy. My parents raised me to make a good impression. You already have, she said, or I wouldnt have agreed to come. For the first time in her presence, I was at a loss for words. I think she knew shed thrown me because she laughed. All right, she went on. Lets get on the boat and find some alligators. I led the way down to the dock, setting her cooler next to mine as we climbed on board. The boat rocked slightly under our shifting weights. Ive never been on a yacht before, she cooed, picking up the thread of my earlier joke. I hope its safe. Dont worry. Shes seaworthy. I hopped back on the dock briefly to untie the ropes, then rejoined her, asking, Would you like a beer or glass of wine before we get going? A beer sounds good. I reached into my cooler and pulled out a Yuengling. Twisting off the cap, I handed it to her. I opened a beer for myself as well, privately celebrating our first drink together. I held my bottle toward her. Thank you for coming, I said. Cheers. She tapped her bottle against mine before taking a small sip. This is good, she commented, inspecting the label. Wasting no time, I moved to the stern and started the engine with a pull of the cord. Back in the cockpit, I increased the throttle and inched away from the dock. I made my way toward the middle of the creek, grateful for the breeze. I could already feel a thin sheen of perspiration beginning to form, but Natalie seemed more than comfortable. She stood at the railing, watching the scenery with her hair fanning out behind her, gorgeous in the sunlight. I found myself admiring her legs before I turned my attention back to steering the boat. Crashing might mar the good impression Id made earlier, what with the whole tablecloth-and-candles-on-the-porch thing. We puttered through one wide turn after the next. Housing on either side of the creek gave way to fishing camps dotting only one bank; and after that, nothing but wilderness. Meanwhile, despite my lack of depth perception, I expertly avoided various hazards and would have pointed out my boating mastery to her, but for the ubiquitous presence of neon-colored buoys alerting boaters to keep a safe distance. After slathering sunscreen on her arms and legs, Natalie joined me in the cockpit. This is the first time Ive gone up Brices Creek, she said. Its beautiful. How can you live here and never come up this way? No boat, she said. I mean, Ive been on the Trent River and the Neuse River with friends, but we never came up this way. I thought you dont go out much. I dont, she said. Not lately, anyway. Though I could have asked her why, I could tell she didnt want me to. If youre hungry, there are some snacks on the table. Thanks, but Im fine for now. I cant remember the last time I had a beer, so Im kind of enjoying this. She stared out at the slow-moving black water, clutching her cold bottle and basking in the sun. How did you know where to find the alligators? she asked. I overheard some people talking when I had lunch at the Trading Post, so I decided to check it out. Ive never eaten there. Believe it or not, the food is actually pretty good. Ive heard that. But its kind of far from where I live. Nothing is far away in New Bern. I know, but I spend so much time behind the wheel when Im on duty that I get sick of driving. You drove here and my place isnt far from the Trading Post. The Trading Post doesnt have tablecloths and candles. I chuckled. We continued upstream, trees pushing in from the banks, the water ahead as flat as a billiard table. Here and there, we saw the occasional dock, overgrown and rotting, jutting into the creek. Above us, an osprey circled. Natalie continued to stand beside me, and I had the sense that something had changed between us. Every now and then, she took a sip of her beer and I wondered whether shed been nervous about our date. Was she seeing someone else? I still thought it likely, but if that was the case, why had she come today or gone to dinner with me? Because she was bored or unhappy? Or simply lonely? And what was he like? How long had they been going out? It was also possible that shed just been curious about the alligators and viewed me as a friend, but then why stand so close to me? She knew I was attracted to her. Common sense indicated that asking her to a second dinner in as many weekends meant something more than a desire for simple friendship, yet shed agreed to meet me again. If she really was dating someone else, how would she explain her absence today? Did he live out of town? Was he in the military and deployed elsewhere? As usual, I had no answers. The creek continued to narrow until we reached the boat ramp and entered the national forest. On the dock, I saw a father and son fishing; they waved as we motored past. Though I was only half-done with my beer, it was already growing warm. Leaning over the railing, I dumped the remainder and slid the empty bottle into the wastebasket in the cockpit. How much longer? Her voice drifted back to me. Almost there, I answered. Another few minutes. Rounding the final bend, I began to slow the boat. In the treetop, I spotted one of the eagles sitting in the nest, though its mate wasnt around. Up ahead, on the opposite side of the creek, in the small muddy clearing, were two alligators sunning themselves. They were juveniles, no more than five feet from nose to the tip of their tail, but it still felt like a stroke of luck. There they are, I said, waving her over. She ran toward the bow, vibrating with excitement. I cant believe it, she offered. Theyre right there! Turning the wheel, I tried to angle the boat so we could sit in the recliners and enjoy the wildlife. Satisfied, I shut off the engine, then retreated to the stern to drop anchor, feeling the rope tighten as it caught on the bottom. By then, Natalie had pulled out her phone and begun to take pictures. Theres something else, too, I reminded her. The surprise I told you about. What? I pointed at the treetop. Theres an eagles nest right over there, and there are eaglets, too. Theyre kind of hard to spot, but keep your eye out. Natalie looked from the eagles to the alligators and back again while I removed the plastic cover from the tray of food and grabbed another beer from the cooler. I popped a strawberry into my mouth and settled into one of the recliners. Leaning back, I used the lever to raise the leg support. Comfy? Natalie smirked. My grandfather was a wise man when it came to luxury. Natalie picked a few grapes from the platter and took a seat, though she didnt fully recline the chair. I cant believe Ive finally seen an alligator, she marveled. You mention a desire, I make it happen. Im a bit like a genie in that way. She made a face, but I could tell she was warming to my humor. I balanced a piece of cheese on a cracker as Natalie set her beer on the table. Sois this your thing? she asked. I dont know what you mean. All of this, she said, spreading her arms wide. The setup back at your house, boat rides, surprises. Is this how you generally try to pick up women? Not always. I took a meek sip of my beer. Then why the big show today? Because I thought youd enjoy it. I leaned my bottle toward hers. To the alligators. And the eagle, she agreed reluctantly, reaching for her bottle and tapping it against mine. But dont try to change the subject. Im not sure what the subject is. I get the vibe that youre a player. When it comes to women, I mean. Because Im so clever and charismatic? Because Im not na?ve. Fair enough. I laughed. But its not just me. You could have declined my invitation. She reached for another grape. I know, she finally agreed, her voice dropping an octave. Do you regret it? Actually, I dont. You sound surprised. I am, she said, and for the next few minutes, neither of us said anything. Instead, we took in the view, Natalie finally spotting the eaglets in the nest. She lifted her phone to get some pics, but by that time, theyd ducked below the rim of the nest again. I heard her sigh, squinting at me. Have you ever been in love? she asked. Though I hadnt expected the question, an unbidden memory of Sandra rose to the surface. I think so, I said. You think? When we were together, I thought I was, I admitted. But now, Im not sure. Why wouldnt you be sure? If I were really in love, I think Id miss her more than I do. Id think about her more. Who was she? I hesitated. She was a trauma nurseher name was Sandra. She was smart. Beautiful. Passionate about her work. We met in Pensacola and we were happy together at first, but it got complicated after I was deployed to Afghanistan. I shrugged. When I came back, I I looked over at her. I already told you I wasnt in a good space mentally or emotionally, and I took it out on her. Im amazed she put up with me for as long as she did. How long were you together? A little more than two years. But you have to remember, I was gone a lot of the time. By the end, I wondered how well we even knew each other. After we broke up, it took me a while to understand that I missed the idea of having someone, as opposed to missing her. I knew I never loved her the way my grandfather loved my grandmother, or even the way my parents loved each other. My grandfather was a true romantic; my parents were partners and friends and they complemented each other perfectly. I didnt feel either of those things with Sandra. I dont know. Maybe I just wasnt ready. Or maybe she wasnt the one. Maybe. Anyone else? When you were younger maybe? For whatever reason, my mind flashed to Yoga Girl, but I shook my head. I went out with girls in high school and college, but nothing monumental. After my parents died, while in medical school and residency, I told myself that I was too busy for anything serious. You probably were. I smiled, appreciating the response, even if we both knew it was an excuse. How about you? You said that youve been in love? Are you more the romantic type, or the partner-and-friends type? Both, she said. I wanted it all. Did you get it? Yes, she said. She held up her bottle, still half-full. What should I do with this? Ill take it, I said, reaching for her bottle. I rose from my seat, emptied the remains into the creek, and put the empty beside my own in the wastebasket. On my way back, I gestured at the cooler. Would you like another? Do you have bottled water? Of course. I came prepared. I handed a water bottle to her before settling in my chair again. We continued to chat while we picked at the snacks, avoiding anything too personal. Our earlier discussion about love seemed to have butted up against some sort of internal personal limit of hers, so we talked about the town, the gun range where Natalie liked to shoot, and some of the more complicated surgeries Id performed in the past. Eventually she was able to get photos of the eaglets and texted the images to me, something I realized only when I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket and checked the screen. As we floated in place, a thin layer of clouds had begun to form, turning the sun from yellow to orange, and when the sky began shading toward violet, I knew it was time to start back. I raised the anchor and started the motor, Natalie covering the snack tray before joining me in the cockpit. I drove faster on the return, making for a shorter trip, but was still amazed at how quickly time had passed. By the time Id tied up the boat, dusk was settling in, the sky a brilliant palette, and crickets had begun to chirp. I helped Natalie to the dock, then handed the smaller cooler to her. Balancing the platter on the larger cooler, I walked beside her toward the back porch. Once on the porch, I lifted the cooler lid. Would you like another bottle of water? I asked. Do you have any wine? Would you like red or white? White. Heading inside, I pulled the wine from the refrigerator and located a corkscrew. Pouring two glasses, I returned to the porch. She was standing near the railing, watching the sunset. Here you go, I said, handing her a glass. Sauvignon blanc. Thank you. We took a sip in tandem, taking in the view. I called the hospital, as you suggested, I said. About my grandfather. And? You were rightit was a critical first step. I went on, filling her in. She listened carefully, her eyes never leaving my face. Where do you think he was going? If it wasnt Easley? I dont know. But you dont think he went to see Helen? Unless hed undergone a radical change, I just cant imagine him being interested in another woman. Not at his age, not so far away, and definitely not with the way he still spoke about my grandmother. He told me about her once, Natalie mused. He said she used to hum to herself in the kitchen when she was cooking and that sometimes, even now, he imagined he could still hear it. When did he tell you that? Last year, maybe? It was at the farmers market and I cant remember how the subject even came up, but I recall thinking about that story when I got home. I could tell he still loved her. Thats what I mean, I agreed. He was a one-woman man. She took another sip. Do you believe in that? One woman for one man, for all time? The whole soul mate thing? I guess its possible for some coupleslike them or maybe even my parentsbut its probably more the exception than the rule. I think most people fall in love more than once in their life. And yet youre unsure whether youve ever been in love. Its not fair to paraphrase my earlier statements back to me. She laughed. So what are you going to do about your grandfather? Im thinking about driving down to Easley on Tuesday. I want to find out where he was picked up and try to locate his truck. Maybe itll help me figure things out. Thats a long way to travel without much to go on, she pointed out. It should only take a couple of days. As I spoke, I saw her shiver. She set her wineglass on the railing and rubbed her arms. Sorry. I think Im getting a little cold. Do you have a bathroom where I can change? The bathrooms are tiny, so feel free to use one of the bedrooms if youd rather. Are you hungry yet? Do you want me to get the grill going? She nodded. Im getting hungry, so that would be great. Do you think I could have a little more wine before I go in? Of course. In the kitchen, I poured her more wineshe stopped me at half a glasswatching as she retrieved her bag from the family room and disappeared into the bedroom. Uncertain what she wanted for dinneraside from the tunaId dumped a lot of different options into the grocery cart earlier. There was not only a salad and green bean amandine, but rice pilaf and coleslaw as well. Lest anyone get too impressed, the rice pilaf came in a box with easy-to-prepare directions, and the coleslaw had come from the deli section of the grocery store. Sandra had taught me how to prepare green beans with olive oil, garlic, and slivers of almonds. I set the water boiling on the stove for the rice, scooped the coleslaw into a glass bowl and, along with the green salad and a bottle of dressing, brought all that to the table outside. I started the grill, added salt and pepper to the steak, and poured the rice and seasoning into the pot. After mixing soy sauce and wasabi for a dipping sauce for her tuna, I tossed the steak on the grill and returned to the kitchen for the green beans. The steak, rice, and beans cooked quickly; I covered them with foil and placed them in the oven to keep warm, but there was still no sign of Natalie. Her tuna would take only a minute or two to sear, so I didnt bother starting it yet. Instead, I moved a speaker out onto the porch, then used my iPhone to play some favorite tunes of mine from the eighties. I took a seat in the rocker, sipped the wine Id poured earlier, and watched the moon as it rose, glowing just above the trees. It was one of those beautiful crescent-shaped oneswaxing or waning, but I wasnt sure which. At some point in the past year I had downloaded an app that told you everything about the constellations and where to find them in the night sky; it occurred to me that I could fire it up and then try to later impress Natalie with my knowledge of astronomy. But I dismissed the idea. Shed see right through me, for starters. Strangely, the more she rolled her eyes, the more I felt like I could simply be myself. I liked thathell, Natalie was pretty much the entire package as far as I could tellbut what did it matter? I was leaving, so it wasnt as though we had a chance at any kind of lasting relationship. Id head off on my journey, shed continue on her way, all of which meant there was no reason to get carried away, right? It was a familiar exercise for me. In high school, Id kept an emotional distance from the girls Id dated, and the same thing had happened in both college and medical school. With Sandra, it might have been different in the beginning, but toward the end, I could barely handle myself, let alone a relationship. While all of those women had their charms, it struck me that I was always thinking about the next phase of my life, one that didnt include them. That might seem shallow and maybe it was, but I firmly believed that everyone should strive to be the best version of themselves that they can possibly be, a belief that sometimes required difficult choices. But Natalie had been wrong in thinking that it made me a player. I was more of a serial dater than a man on the prowl. Yoga Girl (Lisa? Elisa? Elise?) was the exception, not the rule. On the porch, I could feel the pull of my own behavioral history, warning me not to fall for a woman I would soon leave behind. Nothing good could come of that. She would be hurt and I would be hurt, and even if somehow we tried to make a go of it, Id learned firsthand that distance can put a strain on any relationship. And yet Something had changed between us, and there was no way I could deny it. Nor was I sure exactly when it happened. Maybe it was something as simple as a deeper level of comfort, but I realized that I craved more than a physical relationship with her. I wanted what wed had when Id shown her the beehives or ridden on the boat or sipped wine on the back porch. I wanted easy banter and deep communication and long periods when neither of us felt the need to say anything at all. I wanted to wonder what she was thinking, often to be surprised; I wanted her to gently trace the scar on my hand and show her the others that marked my skin. It all felt odd to me, even a bit frightening. Outside, the moon continued its slow rise, turning the lawn a bluish silver. A warm breeze gently stirred the leaves, like the sound of someone whispering. Stars above were reflected in the waters of the creek, and I suddenly understood why my grandfather had never wanted to leave. Behind me, I sensed a sudden dimming of light, heralding Natalies approach from within the house. Turning to greet her, I smiled automatically before fully registering the woman who stood before me in the doorway. For a moment, I could only stare, certain that Id never seen someone more beautiful. Natalie was wearing a low-cut, sleeveless burgundy pencil dress that clung to her slender curves. Gone was the chain around her neck Id never seen her without, and she was wearing wide-hooped earrings and sleek, delicate pumps. But it was her face that mesmerized me. Shed put on mascara, accentuating her thick eyelashes, and her expertly applied makeup gave her skin a luminous quality. I caught the trace of perfume, something that hinted of wildflowers. In her hand, she held her empty wineglass. My staring must have given her pause, because she wrinkled her nose slightly. Too much? Her voice was enough to bring me out of my stupor. No, I said. You arestunning. Thank you. She smiled, looking almost shy. I know its not true, but I appreciate it. I mean it, I said, and all at once, I knew: This is what I wanted; I wanted Natalie, not just for tonight, but for a lifetime of days and nights like the one we were having right now. The feeling was undeniable, and I suddenly understood what my grandfather must have felt when he first saw Rose in front of the drugstore so long ago. I am in love with her, a voice echoed clearly in my mind. It felt slightly surreal, and yet truer than anything Id ever known. But I also heard that warning voice again, telling me to end things now, before they became even more serious. To make things easier for both of us. The cautionary voice was only a whisper, though, fading before the surge of my feelings. This is what its like, I thought. This is what my grandfather was talking about. Through it all, Natalie stayed quiet, but for the first time, I knew what she was thinking. I could see in her radiant smile that she was feeling exactly the same way about me. * * * I forced myself to turn away as Natalie glided onto the porch. Clearing my throat, I asked, Would you like another glass? I think Id like one. Just half, she murmured. Ill be right back. In the kitchen, it felt like I was finally able to exhale. I tried to get hold of myself, focusing on the simple act of pouring the wine as a means of slowing things down. I somehow made it to the back porch holding the two glasses, trying desperately to hide my inner turmoil. I handed her the wine. We can eat whenever youre ready. I still have to sear your tuna, but that wont take long. Do you need help? There are a few things in the refrigerator and the oven, but let me start your tuna first, okay? At the grill, I unwrapped the tuna, alert to Natalies approach. She stood close, enveloping me in the smell of her perfume. How do you like your tuna? I asked robotically. Rare or medium rare? Rare, she said. I mixed up some soy sauce and wasabi for you. Arent you something? she asked in a husky drawl, nudging me slightly, the feeling making me light-headed. I really, truly have to get hold of myself. After checking the heat, I put the tuna on the grill. Natalie took that as her cue, returning to the kitchen to bring the other dishes to the table. I looked over my shoulder. Could you bring me your plate? For your tuna? Of course, she said, sauntering toward me. I plated the tuna and we walked to the table. As she took her seat, she nodded toward the food. You made enough for four people, she observed. Then, leaning forward, she added, I had a really nice time on the boat today. Im glad you asked me to come. A perfect day, I agreed. We served up, passing various sides back and forth with easy familiarity. The conversation roamed from the alligators and the eagles and life in Florida, to the places we wanted to visit one day. Her eyes sparkled with hidden fire, making me feel intensely alive. How had I fallen in love with her so quickly, without even being aware of it? Afterward, she helped me bring the dishes to the kitchen and put the leftovers away. When we finished, we returned to the porch railing and stared toward the creek, my shoulder nearly touching hers. The music was still playing, a melancholy Fleetwood Mac ballad. Though I wanted to slip my arm around her, I didnt. She cleared her throat before finally raising her eyes to meet mine. Theres something I should probably tell you, she said. Her tone was soft but serious, and I felt my stomach contract. I already knew what she was going to say. Youre seeing someone else, I said. She was absolutely still. How did you know? I didnt. But I suspected. I stared at her. Does it really matter? I suppose it doesnt. Is it serious? I asked, hating that I wanted to know. Yes, she said. She turned away, unable to meet my eyes. But its not what you probably think. How long have you been together? A few years, she answered. Do you love him? She seemed to struggle with her answer. I know I loved him at one time. And until a couple of weeks ago, I thought I still did, but then She ran her hands through her hair before turning to face me. I met you. Even on that first night when we talked right here, I knew that I was attracted to you. Honestly, it terrified me. But as scared as I was, and as wrong as I knew it was, there was part of me that wanted to spend time with you. I tried to pretend the feeling wasnt there; I told myself to ignore it and forget about you. As small a town as New Bern is, I hardly ever go out, so it was unlikely Id ever see you again. But thenyou were at the farmers market. And I knew exactly why you were there. And all those feelings bubbled up again. She closed her eyes, something weary in the slump of her shoulders. I saw you walking, she said. After you bought a coffee. I just happened to be leaving the market, and there you were. I told myself to let it go. Let you go. But the next thing I knew, I was walking in the same direction and I saw you go into the park. You followed me? It felt like I didnt have a choice. It was like something elseor someone elsewas propelling me forward. II wanted to get to know you even better. Despite the seriousness of her words, I smiled. Why did you accuse me of following you? Panic, she admitted. Confusion. Shame. Take your pick. Youre a good actress. Maybe, she said. I dont know why I couldnt say what Id hoped to say. We fell so easily into talking about other thingsand when you offered to show me the beehives, I knew I had to accept. I tried to convince myself that it meant nothing, but deep down, I knew it wasnt true. And it just kept happeningwith dinner in Beaufort, and the boat, and now this. Every time Im with you, I tell myself that I shouldnt, that we should stop seeing each other. And every time, the words never come. Until now. She nodded, her lips a tight line, and my throat constricted in the silence that followed. Instinctively, I found myself reaching for her hand, felt her fingers stiffen and then, finally, relax. I gently turned her to face me. With my other hand, I reached up and caressed her cheek. Look at me, I whispered. When she slowly lifted her gaze, I went on. Do you really want to leave right now? At my words, her eyes moistened. Her jaw trembled slightly, but she didnt pull away. Yes, she whispered. And then, with a swallow, she squeezed her eyes shut. No. In the background, the strains of a song whose name I had forgotten drifted through the air. The porch light cast a golden glow over her sun-kissed skin. I inched forward, placing my other hand on her hip, noting the confusion and fear and love in her expression, then put my arms around her waist. Her eyes were locked on mine as our bodies came together, and I could feel her quiver as I began to caress her back. Beneath the thin fabric of her dress, her skin felt hot, and I was intensely aware of the curves of her body as it pressed against my own. She felt so good to meundeniably real, elemental even, as if we had been forged from the same matter. I inhaled the scent of her, unable to stay silent. I love you, Natalie, I whispered. And I dont want you to ever leave. The words somehow made the feeling even more real, and I suddenly felt the possibility of a lifetime together. I knew I would do anything to make things work between us, even if that meant staying in New Bern. I could switch my residency to East Carolina University, which was less than an hour from my grandfathers home; I could even give up the practice of medicine altogether. The alternative was a future without her in it, and in that instant, there was nothing more important than remaining with this woman, now and forever. By her expression, I knew she recognized the intensity of what I was feeling. Though it may have frightened her, she didnt pull away. Instead, she leaned into me and twined her arms around my neck as she rested her head on my shoulder. I could feel her breasts, soft and full, press against me. She inhaled and slowly let out her breath, a kind of release. I love you, too, Trevor, she whispered. I shouldnt, and I know I cant, but I do. She lifted her head from my shoulder as my lips met her neck. Her skin felt as delicate as silk under the tip of my tongue. With a groan, she pulled me even closer, and I finally moved my lips toward hers. I kissed her, reveling in the tentative fluttering of her lips as she kissed me back; when my mouth opened, I felt hers open in response and our tongues touched, the feeling as exquisite as anything Id ever known. My hands began to explore her body, tenderly tracing her stomach, then the side of her breast, trailing down her hip, already memorizing the feel of her body. Through it all, I was conscious of my love for her, coupled with a riptide of desire more powerful than Id ever felt before. I wanted all of her. When I finally pulled back slightly, our bodies still tight against each other, her eyes were half-closed, her mouth parted in sensual anticipation. Then, in a motion that felt utterly natural, I encircled her hand with my own and took a small step backward. Her eyes stayed on mine, and with a gentle tug, I led her inside, toward the bedroom.

  • Pollyanna /  (Porter, 2014)    Pollyanna /
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  • The Summer Children /   (by Dot Hutchison, 2018) -   The Summer Children /
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