Authors: Nicholas Sparks
She waited on the stump
out front, idly watching the fieldworkers in the distance, until she heard the low-throated rumble of the bus resonating in the oppressive heat. As Tommie rose from his seat at the rear of the bus, she stood. Watching him through the bus window, she wished that he’d been in the midst of a conversation with one of the other kids and would linger at the door while saying goodbye. But he didn’t; he simply stepped off and trudged toward her as though his backpack, and life, were weighing him down. She reached for the backpack, offering a quick wave to the driver, who waved in return.
“How was school?” she asked as the bus pulled away.
Tommie shrugged, but this time she smiled, knowing it had been a dumb question. Her mom used to ask her the same thing, but school was always just…school.
She ran her hand through his hair. “How about an apple when we get inside? I went to the store today.”
“Did you buy Oreos?”
“Not this time.”
He nodded. “Then I guess an apple will be okay.”
She squeezed his shoulder and the two of them walked into the house together.
Tommie had no homework—there
was never homework in first grade, thank God—so after she handed him an apple, they did a bit of exploring around the property. Not that there was much to see other than the barn that was
which looked older than the house and would likely fall down as soon as the next storm hit. Still, they eventually found a meandering creek shaded by dogwood trees. She wasn’t sure how she knew what kind of trees they were, just as she wasn’t sure how she knew they bloomed in the spring. She assumed she must have read it somewhere. When Tommie tossed the apple core into the water, she had an idea, something from her own childhood.
“Let’s see if there are any tadpoles, okay? Take off your shoes and socks.”
After Tommie’s feet were bare, she rolled up his pant legs, then did her own. They walked into the water, not far, but the bank was shallow.
“What’s a tadpole?” Tommie asked.
“It’s a baby frog,” she said. “Before it gets legs.”
Bending over, they walked slowly, and Beverly spotted the familiar black wiggling creatures. Tommie wasn’t sure how to catch them, so Beverly bent lower, making a cup with her hands. She scooped one out, holding it for her son so he could see. For the first time since they’d been at the house, she saw what seemed to be excitement and wonder in his expression.
“That’s a tadpole? And it’s going to turn into a frog?”
“Soon,” she said. “They grow pretty fast.”
“But these aren’t the frogs I heard last night, right?”
“No. Those were grown-up frogs. But maybe we should let this guy go, so he can get back to the water, okay?”
She let the tadpole go while Tommie hunted for another one. It didn’t take long before he tried to scoop one into his hands, only to have it escape. On his third effort he was finally able to show her. Again, his expression warmed her heart, and she felt a surge of relief at the idea that he would eventually get used to living in a place like this.
“Can I bring some to school for show-and-tell? On field day?”
“The teacher said that instead of school, kids stay outside all day. And there’s a big show-and-tell.”
Beverly dimly remembered such days when she’d been in elementary school: There were races and games and prizes, and the fire department brought a truck, and parent volunteers brought cookies and cupcakes and other snacks. She recalled that her mom had shown up for one of them, but for whatever reason she’d been asked to leave, and Beverly could remember how she’d stomped off, shouting at everyone.
“When is field day?”
“I’m not sure exactly. But it’s this week for sure.”
“You’ll have fun. I used to love field day, because it meant I
could play with my friends all day long. But as for bringing the tadpoles, I suppose we could put them in a jar, but I don’t know how long they can live that way, especially if they’re in the sun for hours. I’d hate for something bad to happen to them.”
For a long moment, he was quiet. He let the tadpole go and scratched at his cheek with a dirty finger. “I miss my old room.”
Whoever had slept in his current bedroom obviously wasn’t a child. The closet and chest of drawers were still full of clothing for an adult, and the bed was oversized. There were paintings, not posters, on the walls.
“I know you do,” she said. “It’s hard moving to a new place.”
“Why couldn’t I bring more of my toys?”
Because I couldn’t carry them. Because people at the bus station would have remembered. Because running meant we had to travel light.
“We just couldn’t.”
“When can I see Brady and Derek again?”
They were his best friends, also left behind. She smiled at the irony. When she was little, there were kids in her class with exactly the same names.
“We’ll see,” she said. “Probably not for a while, though.”
He nodded, then bent lower, looking for tadpoles again. Barefoot, with his pants rolled, he struck her as a throwback to a different generation. She prayed he wouldn’t ask about his father, but he seemed to know that it wouldn’t be a good idea. There were, after all, still bruises on his arm from the last time Gary had grabbed him.
“It’s different here,” he finally said. “I can see the moon through my window at night.”
Because it was more than he generally volunteered, she couldn’t help but smile again.
“I used to read you
When you were little.”
He knitted his small brow. “Is that the one with the cow jumping over the moon?”
He nodded again, then went back to searching. Caught one, let it go. Caught another and then let it go, as well. Watching him, Beverly was suffused with love, glad she had risked everything in order to keep him safe.
After all, Tommie’s father was, on average days, a very angry, dangerous man.
But now, with his wife and child gone, he was likely even worse.
The rest of the afternoon
was quiet. Tommie watched cartoons, and Beverly examined the paint cans stacked near the washer and dryer before locating not only a can of primer but at least half a can of yellow paint called Summer Daisy, which might not be the exact tint she would have chosen but was a thousand times better than god-awful orange. There was a beige she might be able to use in the living room, even if it was a bit bland, and an almost full can of glossy white for the kitchen cupboards. Kind of mind-boggling to find so much paint, but in a good way, like the house had been waiting all along for her and Tommie to claim it.
She took a closer look, too, at the paintbrushes and rollers. On closer inspection, they were obviously used but looked clean enough to suffice. And unless she wanted to make a trip to the hardware store and spend money she didn’t have, they would have to do.
She brought everything she thought she’d need to the kitchen before starting dinner. Tonight would be chicken, boiled carrots,
beans. She added extra carrots to Tommie’s plate, but when he didn’t finish them, she reached over, eating them one by one. Though Tommie wanted to turn on the television again after dinner, she instead suggested a game. She’d spotted a box of dominoes in the cabinet in the living room, and though it had been a long time since she’d played, she knew the rules were simple enough for Tommie to grasp. He did; he even beat her a couple of times. Once he began to yawn, she sent him upstairs for a quick bath. He was old enough to do it alone—he’d lately started reminding her about that—so she let him be. Since he didn’t have pajamas, he slept in his underpants and the shirt he’d worn to school. She thought again about kids at school beginning to tease him and knew she’d have to find him something else to wear, as long as she could find bargains.
Money. She needed more money. Life always came down to money, and she felt her anxiety suddenly rise before forcing the feeling away. Instead, she sat with Tommie on his bed, read
Go, Dog. Go!
before tucking him in, and then retreated to the rockers on the front porch. Residual heat lingered from the day, making the evening pleasant; the air vibrated with the sounds of frogs and crickets. Rural sounds, country sounds. Sounds she remembered from her own childhood. Sounds she never heard in the suburbs.
As she rocked, she thought about the years she’d spent with Gary and how the sweet and charming demeanor that she’d fallen in love with changed within the first month of marriage. She remembered him sneaking up behind her to kiss her neck after she’d just poured a glass of wine.
wine, not red, and she’d collided with him when she turned. The wine splashed onto his shirt, one of his new ones, and though she’d apologized immediately, she’d laughed, as well, already planning to rinse the shirt before dropping it off at the dry cleaner’s the following
morning. She was about to flirt with him—
I guess I’ll have to get you out of that shirt, handsome—
but even as the thought was forming, he slapped her across the face, the sound deafening and the sting intense.
And after that?
In retrospect, she knew she should have left then. Should have known that Gary was a chameleon, a man who had learned to hide his true colors. She wasn’t naïve; she’d seen the TV specials and skimmed magazine articles about abusive men. But her desire to believe and trust had overridden her common sense.
That’s not him,
she told herself. Gary apologized as he wept, and she’d believed him when he said he was sorry. She’d believed him when he said he loved her, that he’d simply reacted. She’d believed him when he said it would never happen again.
But because she’d become a living cliché, her life descended into one. Of course, he eventually slapped her again; in time, those slaps turned to punches. Always in the stomach or in the lower back, where the bruises couldn’t be seen, even though the blows would leave her crumpled on the floor, struggling to breathe, her vision fading to a tunnel. In those moments, his face would turn red and the vein in his forehead would bulge as he screamed at her. He would throw plates and cups against the wall of the kitchen, leaving glass shattered around her. That was always the end of the cycle. The out-of-control anger. The shouting. The infliction of pain. But always, instead of ending for good, the cycle would begin anew. With apologies and promises and gifts like flowers or earrings or lingerie, and though she continued to hear the warning bells in her head, the sounds were drowned out by a burgeoning desire to believe that this time he’d changed. And for days and weeks, Gary would again be the man she married. They would go out with friends, and people would comment on their perfect marriage; her single girlfriends would
tell her how lucky she was to have walked the aisle with a man like Gary.
Sometimes she even believed them. As time passed, she would remind herself not to do anything to make him angry. She would be the perfect wife and they would live in the perfect home, precisely the way he wanted it. She’d make the bed with the duvet straight and neat, the pillows fluffed just right. She’d fold and stack his clothes in the drawers, organized by color. She’d shine his shoes and line up the items in the cupboards. She’d make sure the television remote was on the coffee table and angled exactly toward the corner of the room. She knew what he liked—he made sure that she understood—and her days were spent doing all that was important to him. But just when she thought that the worst was behind her, something would happen. The chicken she cooked might be too dry, or he’d find towels still in the dryer, or one of the houseplants on the windowsill had begun to wilt, and his face would suddenly tighten. His cheeks would turn red, his pupils would grow smaller, and he’d drink more in the evenings, three or four glasses of wine instead of only one. And then the following days and weeks were akin to walking through a minefield, where a single misstep would lead to the inevitable explosion, followed by pain.
But that was an old story, right? Her story was the same as that of thousands, maybe even millions, of other women. Now she understood that there was something wrong with Gary, something that could never be fixed. And Gary had a sick and intuitive kind of radar, one that seemed to understand how far he could actually go. When she was pregnant, he hadn’t laid a hand on her; he’d known she would leave him if he did anything to possibly hurt the baby. Nor had he touched her in the first few months after Tommie was born, when she was sleep-deprived. It was the only time during the marriage when she’d let her
responsibilities in the house slide. She still cooked his meals and did his laundry and shined his shoes and kissed him the way he wanted, but sometimes the living room was cluttered when he came home from work, and sometimes Tommie had drool or spills on his clothing. It wasn’t until Tommie was five or six months old that he slapped her again. On that night, Gary had bought her a negligé, the box wrapped with a pretty red bow. She’d always known that Gary liked to see her in negligés, just as he was particular when it came to sex. He always wanted her to whisper certain things, he wanted her hair and makeup done, he wanted her to beg for him to take her, he liked her to talk dirty. On that day, though, when he came home with the negligé, she was utterly exhausted. Tommie had cried inconsolably for much of the previous night, and it had continued while Gary was at work. By then she’d lowered her guard; by then she’d convinced herself that the anger and the shouting and the pain were behind her, so she told him that she was too tired. Instead, she promised to wear the negligé the following evening, and they could make it a special night. Which wasn’t what Gary wanted. He wanted her that night, not the following night
and all at once she was blinking back tears, her cheek on fire with his handprint.
Again, the apologies. Again, the gifts in the aftermath. Again, the knowledge that she should have left. But where would she have gone? Back home, with her tail between her legs, so others could tell her that she’d made a mistake by getting married too young? That she’d made a mistake by falling in love with the wrong man? Even if she could face the endless judgment of others, he would find her there.
It would be the first place he’d look.
As for going to the police, Gary
the police, the most powerful police in the entire world, so who would believe her? More than that, there was also Tommie to think about. For a long time, Gary doted on Tommie. He talked to him and played with him
and held Tommie’s hands as Tommie began to toddle around the house. She knew how hard it was for children to grow up with only a single parent; she’d made a vow that she’d never do that to Tommie. That Gary wouldn’t change diapers didn’t seem all that important when he was willing to spend so much time with his son, to the point that Beverly sometimes felt neglected.
Beverly now understood that Gary was doing the same thing with Tommie that he’d done with her. He pretended to be someone other than who he really was. He pretended to be an ideal, loving father. But Tommie grew older and sometimes dropped a sharp toy that Gary would step on, or there would be puddles on the bathroom floor after Tommie took a bath. The anger inside Gary could hibernate, but it couldn’t rest forever, and as Tommie aged, Gary saw increasing imperfections in his son. He recognized elements of Beverly in Tommie’s personality. He became again the man he truly was. Beverly knew all about the stern voice and occasional shouts; what she hadn’t expected were the bruises she began to find on Tommie’s thighs and arms. As if Gary had squeezed too hard, or maybe even pinched his son.
She hadn’t wanted to believe that Gary could do something like that. When Beverly did something wrong, Gary would tell her that she’d done it on purpose. But Tommie was just a little kid, and Gary had to understand that toddlers made mistakes, right? That nothing Tommie did that angered his father was done on purpose? Beverly went to the library, but the information she found wasn’t much help. Oh, she’d read it all. Books, articles, tips from law enforcement, theories of psychologists and psychiatrists, and the reality was mixed. Sometimes an abusive husband also became abusive to his children, and sometimes he didn’t.
But the strange bruises…
There was also the fact that Tommie had changed from a
laughing, smiling, and outgoing toddler to the quiet, introspective little boy she now knew. Tommie never admitted anything, but Beverly started to see fear in Tommie’s expression when Gary’s car pulled into the driveway after work. She saw a forced enthusiasm when Gary prodded his son to kick the ball around the yard. She also remembered how Tommie had fallen when he was learning to ride a bike a few months earlier. The training wheels should have kept him upright, but they hadn’t, and Tommie cried in her arms with skinned knees and elbows while Gary ranted about how uncoordinated his son was. She remembered how, over time, Gary showed less interest in Tommie; she remembered how he began to treat Tommie more like property than simply a child to love. She remembered how Gary told her that she was spoiling Tommie and that he would grow up to be a mama’s boy. She recalled that on Tommie’s first day of kindergarten, Gary hadn’t seemed to care about anything other than the fact that his eggs were overcooked at breakfast.
And the strange, unexplainable bruises…
Gary might be Tommie’s father, but Beverly was his mother. She had carried him and delivered him. She’d breastfed him, and she was the one who had held him in her arms night after night until he finally learned to sleep more than a few hours at a stretch. She changed his diapers and cooked his meals and made sure he got his vaccinations and brought him to the doctor when his fever was so high that she’d been worried he might get brain damage. She helped him learn to dress himself and gave him baths and loved every minute of all those things, reveling in Tommie’s innocence and continuing development, even as Gary continued his endless cycles of abuse with her, always in the hours after Tommie went to sleep.
In the end, she told herself, she’d had no choice but to do what she had. Law enforcement was out; going back home was out.
associated with her previous life was out. She had to disappear, and leaving Tommie behind was inconceivable. If she wasn’t around, on whom would Gary vent his anger?
She knew. In her soul, she knew exactly what would happen to Tommie, so when she made her plan to run, it was always for both of them, even if it meant that Tommie had to leave his friends and toys and pretty much everything else behind, so they could begin an entirely new life.