From there, it went like a tornado wind. Fin told him she was spending the summer in New Bern with her family, because her father worked for a tobacco firm, and though he only nodded, the way she was looking at him made his silence seem okay. Fin laughed then, because he knew what was happening, and Sarah suggested they get some cherry cokes, and the four of them stayed at the festival until the crowds were thin and everything closed up for the night.
They met the following day, and the day after that, and they soon became inseparable. Every morning but Sunday, when he had to go to church, he would finish his chores as quickly as possible, then make a straight line to Fort Totten Park, where she’d be waiting for him. Because she was a newcomer and hadn’t lived in a small town before, they spent their days doing things that were completely new to her. He taught her how to bait a line and fish the shallows for largemouth bass and took her exploring through the backwoods of the Croatan Forest. They rode in canoes and watched summer thunderstorms, and it seemed as though they’d always known each other.
But he learned things as well. At the town dance in the tobacco barn, it was she who taught him how to waltz and do the Charleston, and though they stumbled through the first few songs, her patience with him eventually paid off, and they danced together until the music ended. He walked her home afterwards, and when they paused on the porch after saying good night, he kissed her for the first time and wondered why he had waited as long as he had.
Later in the summer he brought her to this house, looked past the decay, and told her that one day he was going to own it and fix it up. They spent hours together talking about their dreams-his of seeing the world, hers of being an artist-and on a humid night in August. They both lost their virginity. When she left three weeks later, she took a piece of him and the rest of summer with her. He watched her leave town on an early rainy morning, watched through eyes that hadn’t slept the night before, then went home and packed a hag. He spent the next week alone on Harkers Island.
Noah checked his watch. Eight twelve. He got up and walked to the front of the house and looked up the road. Gus wasn’t in sight, and Noah figured he wouldn’t be coming. He went back to his rocker and sat again.
He remembered talking to Gus about her. The first time he mentioned her. Gus started to shake his head and laugh. “So that’s the ghost you been running from.” When asked what he meant. Gus said. “You know, the ghost, the memory. I been watchin’ you workin’ day and night, slavin’ so hard you barely have time to catch your breath. People do that for three reasons. Either they crazy, or stupid, or tryin’ to forget. And with you, I knew you was tryin’ to forget. I just didn’t know what.”
Gus was right, of course. New Bern was haunted now. Haunted by the ghost of her memory. He saw her in Fort Totten Park, their place, every time he walked by. When he sat on the porch at night with his guitar, he saw her beside him, listening as he played the music of his childhood. Everywhere he looked, he saw things that brought her back to life.
Noah shook his head, and when her image began to fade he returned to Whitman. He read for an hour, looking up every now and then to see raccoons and possums scurrying near the creek. At nine thirty he closed the book, went upstairs to the bedroom and wrote in his journal. Forty minutes later he was sleeping. Clem wandered up the stairs, sniffed him as he slept, and then paced in circles before finally curling up at the foot of his bed.
EARLIER THAT evening and a hundred miles away, she sat alone on the porch swing of her parents’ home, one leg tucked beneath her, wondering if she’d made the right decision. She’d struggled with it for days-and had struggled some more this evening-but in the end she knew she would never forgive herself if she let the opportunity slip away.
Lon didn’t know the real reason she left the following morning. The week before, she’d hinted to him that she might want to visit some antique shops near the coast. “It’s just a couple of days,” she said, “and besides, I need a break from planning the wedding.” She felt bad about the lie, but knew there was no way she could tell him the truth. Her leaving had nothing to do with him, and it wouldn’t he fair of her to ask him to understand.
It was an easy drive from Raleigh, slightly more than two hours, and she arrived a little before eleven. She checked into a small inn downtown, went to her room and unpacked her suitcase, hanging her dresses in the closet and putting everything else in the drawers. She had a quick lunch, asked the waitress for directions to the nearest antique stores, then spent the next few hours shopping. By four thirty she was back in her room.
She sat on the edge of the bed, picked up the phone and called Lon. He couldn’t speak long, but before they hung up she gave him the phone number where she was staying and promised to call the following day. Good, she thought while hanging up the phone. Routine conversation, nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to make him suspicious.
She’d known him almost four years now, it was 1942 when they met, the world at war and America one year in. Everyone was doing their part and she was volunteering at the hospital downtown. The first waves of wounded young soldiers were coming home, and she spent her days with broken men and shattered bodies. When Lon, with his easy charm, introduced himself at a party, she saw in him exactly what she needed: someone with confidence about the future and a sense of humour that drove all her fears away.
He was handsome, intelligent and driven, a successful lawyer eight years older than she, and he pursued his job with passion, not only winning cases but also making a name for himself. She understood his vigorous pursuit of success, for her father and most of the men she met in her social circle were the same way. Like them, he’d been raised that way, and, in the caste system of the South, family name and accomplishments were often the most important consideration in marriage. In some cases they were the only consideration.