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Authors: Nicholas Sparks

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BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
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I loaded my truck
while they called for an Uber in the parking lot. I figured I’d just follow their car, but Morgan jogged toward me while calling to her friends over her shoulder, “We’ll meet you there!

“Assuming you don’t mind, of course,” she said as she reached me.

“Not at all.”

I helped her into the truck, then got in on the other side. The Uber had already arrived, and her friends were squeezing into the back seat of the generic silver midsize sedan. As soon as it edged into traffic, I pulled out behind it.

“I have another question about your farm,” she said.


“I find it interesting.”

“What’s your question?”

“If your chickens aren’t in cages, why don’t they run away? And how do you even find the eggs? Wouldn’t they be all over the pasture? Like an Easter egg hunt?”

“We have fencing around the pastures, but chickens are social creatures, so they like staying near one another. Plus, they like the shade, which is also where their food and water is. As for the eggs, they’re trained to use nesting boxes, which deposit the eggs in a drawer so we can collect them.”

“You train your chickens?”

“You have to. When a new batch of chickens comes in, I stay with them, and whenever a chicken squats to lay an egg, I scoop it up and put it into the nesting box. Chickens generally prefer to lay their eggs in dark and quiet places, so once they’re in the box, they think,
Oh, this is nice,
and they begin using it regularly after that.”

“That is so cool.”

“I guess. It’s just part of the job.”

“Do you do other farming things? Like…do you drive a tractor, too?”

“Of course. And I have to know how to repair them, too. I also have to do a lot of carpentry, plumbing, and even electrical work.”

Her expression brightened. “Look at you. You’re like a man’s man. It must be nice to know that if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, you’ll be one of the survivors.”

I laughed. “I can’t say that I’ve ever thought about it that way.”

“It makes my life seem boring by comparison.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“What’s your sister like? I mean, I know she’s an artist and you live together, but how would you describe her? In three words?”

I leaned back against the headrest, not sure how much I wanted to tell her, so I went with the basics. “Smart,” I began. “Talented. Generous.” Though I could have added that she was
also a survivor, I didn’t. Instead, I went on, explaining how Paige had mostly raised me, which was a big part of the reason we were so close.

“And your aunt?” she pressed.

“Tough. Hardworking. Honest. It wasn’t easy for her after my uncle died, but once we started making changes at the farm, she became her old self again. The farm is pretty much her whole life now, but she loves it. Lately she’s been trying to talk me into expanding into grass-fed organic beef, even though we’ve never raised cattle and I don’t know a thing about it.”

“That might be a good idea. People love having healthy options when they shop.”

“Yeah, but there’s a lot more to it. Having enough pastureland, for instance, or finding a good processor and arranging transportation, or choosing the right breeding lines, and finding customers, along with a zillion other things. It might be more hassle than it’s worth.”

Ahead of me, the silver midsize began to slow before pulling into the parking lot of the restaurant. When it came to a stop, I veered around it and found a spot.

Inside, the hostess led us to a booth in the back corner of the restaurant. As soon as we took our seats and after a few gushy compliments on my show, the interrogation began. Like Morgan, her friends couldn’t believe I was a farmer, and they expressed the same curiosity that Morgan had about my daily activities. They also grilled me about my childhood, my family, and my years in the band. Between drinks and our meals, I managed to glean a few details about them, as well. Stacy had been raised in Indianapolis, had a boyfriend named Steve, and wanted to be a pediatrician; Holly was from a small town in Kentucky and had grown up playing practically every sport available. Maria
hailed from Pittsburgh, had a boyfriend, as well, and nurtured a dream of working on
Dancing with the Stars.
“Realistically, though, I’ll probably end up working at a dance studio and maybe open my own one day. Unless my mom lets me choreograph with her.”

“Will she?”

“She says I still have a lot to learn.” She rolled her eyes. “She’s kind of a hard-ass that way.”

Unlike Morgan, Maria had no compunction about showing me their TikTok page. She queued up a video of the four of them dancing and handed me her phone. When it concluded, she pulled up a second video, and then another.

“I think he gets it,” Morgan interrupted, trying to reach for the phone.

“Just a few more,” Maria protested, waving her off. I could see why they were popular; their performances featured K-pop–level choreography and were sexy in a fun but not over-the-top way. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but I was definitely impressed.

The interrogation turned my way again after that; like Morgan, they were mainly interested in the chickens and tomatoes but frowned at the fact that the farm grew tobacco. And, as I’d done for Morgan, I told them about my rebellion and the band years and how I’d actually become a farmer in the first place. Morgan was clearly resigned to her friends’ scrutiny of me; from time to time our eyes met and she seemed to be silently apologizing.

They refused to let me pay; instead, we all added money to the center of the table, enough to allow for a generous tip. I found myself thinking that each was as impressive, in her own way, as Morgan. Without exception, they were confident, ambitious, and self-possessed.

When we left the restaurant, Morgan and I trailed behind the others. Studying her in the doorway’s muted pools of light, I had the feeling that if I ended up ever seeing her again, I was going to be in trouble.

“I like your friends,” I remarked. “Thanks for letting me tag along.”

“Thanks for being such a good sport,” she said, giving my arm a quick squeeze.

“What’s on your agenda tomorrow?”

“Nothing definite. I’m sure we’ll rehearse in the morning, and we’ll probably spend part of the day at the pool, but Holly also mentioned that she might want to go shopping or visit the Dalí.” Then, as if suddenly realizing who she was talking to, she went on. “It’s a museum in St. Petersburg devoted to the works of Salvador Dalí. He’s a surrealist painter.”

“My sister mentioned something about it,” I said.

She must have heard something in my tone. “You’re not interested?”

“I don’t know enough about art to be either interested or uninterested.”

She laughed that rumbling, deep laugh again. “At least you cop to it. How about you?”

“I haven’t decided. I’ll probably go for a run, but after that, who knows?”

“Will you write another song?”

“If something comes to me.”

“I wish that happened to me. That songs just came to me. I have to struggle with it.”

“I’d love to hear anything you’ve written. Especially now that I’ve seen you dance.”

“Yeah,” she said, “about that. Maria’s really proud of our routines.”

“She should be. You’re all great. Had I known about you, I would have followed you like the other gazillion people.”

Just then, a flash of headlights appeared, signaling the arrival of the girls’ Uber. I saw Holly glancing at her phone and the car’s license plate, confirming the match as they headed toward the car even before it came to a stop.

“If you’d like, I can give you a ride back to the hotel.”

“I’m going to ride with my friends, but thanks.” Then, after a beat, “I’m glad you had a chance to get to know them.”

“For sure.”

She stood there for a second more, apparently reluctant to leave. “I should probably go.”


“We might come to your next show.”

“I’d like that.”

“And if you write another song, I want to be the first to hear it.”

“I can do that.” I had the sense we were both stalling. The next words came almost automatically. “Have you ever been kayaking?”

“Excuse me?”

“My friend Ray told me about this place where you can rent kayaks and paddle through the mangroves. He said it was a pretty cool thing to do.”

“And why are you telling me this?”

“I was wondering if you’d like to go with me. Tomorrow, since you don’t have anything officially planned, I mean.”

It wasn’t the smoothest way to ask a girl out, but in that moment it was all I could muster.

She put her hands on her hips. “What time are you thinking?”

“Nine or so? That way you can be back in time for the Dalí or the pool or whatever.”

“Can you make it ten? Because of rehearsal?”

“Sure. How about we meet in the lobby?”

She touched my arm again, her gaze meeting mine. “I can’t wait.”

If anyone had told me
before I came here that I’d go on a date when I was in St. Pete Beach, I would have laughed. But as I watched Morgan leave, I couldn’t help feeling pleased, even as I wondered what I was getting myself into.

There was something…
about her. The word popped into my head as they drove away, and the more I thought about it, the more apt the description became. While much of what I’d learned about her amplified the differences between us, it struck me that I was the only one who seemed concerned about it. Somehow the fact that we both loved music was common ground enough for her. For now, anyway. Or at least enough for a first date.

But where was it leading? That was the part I couldn’t figure out. Was it a serious first step, or were we moving toward a simple fling? I’m sure a lot of guys would have been happy with the latter, and with anyone else, I might have been.
But I was drawn to Morgan in ways that felt deeper than that.

I liked her, I thought, then suddenly shook my head, knowing that wasn’t quite right.

I liked her a lot.

I don’t think it was
nerves, but whatever the reason, I woke at dawn and couldn’t go back to sleep. Instead, I went for an early-morning run, then tidied up the condo. After my shower, I swung by the grocery store to replenish the snacks and drinks in my cooler.

Assuming I’d get wet, I threw shorts on over a bathing suit, grabbed a spare T-shirt, and wiggled into my flip-flops. By then it was half past nine and I started for the hotel.

The lobby of the hotel was as grand as the rest of the pink palace, bustling in the morning sunlight. Checking my phone, I noted a text from Ray informing me that I’d be starting at four tomorrow instead of five, which meant I’d be playing an extra hour—no big deal; I responded that I’d be there on time. When Morgan finally appeared, she was dressed casually, a turquoise bikini peeking out beneath a white halter and faded denim shorts. She had a Gucci beach tote slung over her shoulder and a pair of expensive sunglasses perched in her hair.

“Hey there,” she said. “Sorry I’m a little late, but I wasn’t sure what to wear.”

“I think you’ll be fine,” I assured her. “Do you have everything?”

When she nodded, I swept my arm toward the door, and a minute later we were rolling down the long, ramped drive.

“How did rehearsal go?”

“Same as always. Just when I think we’re almost there, Maria notices something else we still need to work on.”

“Where do you rehearse? I haven’t seen you on the beach in the mornings when I’m out for my run.”

“We use one of the conference rooms on the main floor. We’re probably not supposed to, but no one at the hotel has complained yet.”

“So, you’re saying you’re a rule breaker?”

“Sometimes,” she offered. “Isn’t everyone?”

“I wouldn’t have guessed that about you.”

“There’s still a lot about me that you don’t know.”

“Care to share?”

“Only if you ask the right questions.”

“All right.” I pretended to ponder the possibilities. “Tell me about your previous boyfriend.”

“I never told you that I had a boyfriend.”

“Then consider me a good guesser.”

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything. What was he like? How long did you go out?”

She sighed. “He was pre-law, two years older than me, and we met during my freshman year. But I was very involved with music and dance and my classes, and I wanted to hang with my friends, too. He had trouble understanding that. He’d get upset when I wasn’t able to spend as much time with him as he
wanted, or he’d suggest that I blow off piano practice or whatever, and it began to irritate me. So after a couple of months I ended it, and that was that. How about you? Tell me about your ex-girlfriend. Or maybe it’s just…girlfriend?” She gave me a sidelong look.

“Definitely an ex,” I assured her, before giving her the brief rundown on Michelle, our incompatible schedules, and her eventual move out of town. While listening, Morgan absently polished the lenses of her sunglasses with her halter, her expression serious.

“Do you regret that it didn’t work out?”

“Maybe a little, at first. Not so much anymore.”

“I never regretted breaking it off,” she said.

“It’s good to know you can dump someone without a care in the world.”

“He deserved it.”

“It was his loss.”

She smiled. “By the way, my friends approve of you. They think you’re nice, even if they’re still not a hundred percent sure it was a good idea for me to join you today.”

“They could have tagged along.”

“It’s not that they’re afraid you’re going to do anything,” she explained. “It’s just that I’m the youngest, and sometimes I think they feel they have to watch out for me.”

“Like your parents?”

“Exactly. According to them, I’ve led a sheltered life, which makes me a bit naïve.”

“Are they right?”

“Probably a little,” she admitted with a laugh. “But I think most people in college are naïve. It sort of goes with the territory, especially if you grew up in a nice neighborhood and had a good family. What do any of us really know about the real world, right?
Of course, if I said that to my friends, they would add that I’m also being defensive.”

I glanced over at her. “For what it’s worth, you don’t strike me as naïve,” I said. “You carry Mace, after all.”

“I think they’re talking about my emotions.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so instead, I steered the conversation to easier topics. We talked about movies and songs we liked, and after I explained how my uncle had taught me to play the guitar, she told me that she knew the words to practically every song in half a dozen Disney movies even before she started school. She talked to me about her years in dance and the concerts she’d performed and raved about her private vocal coach in Chicago. Even in college, she’d traveled to see him every other week, despite the other time-consuming requirements of her major. When she finally mentioned the names of the managers she would meet in Nashville and the singers they represented—as well as their strengths and weaknesses—along with the vagaries of the music business in general, I thought again that Morgan was a lot more than a pretty face. There was a sophistication to her that I’d never seen in someone so young, and I was struck by the realization that my own attempts at chasing my dream had paled in comparison. While she’d been thoughtfully building her skills one step at a time and laying the groundwork for later success, I’d just been having fun.

Strangely, I wasn’t jealous about that, nor was I jealous that she’d had advantages and opportunities that I didn’t. Instead, I was happy for her, mainly because I remembered how much the dream had once meant to me. I also simply liked listening to her talk, and I realized the more I learned about her, the more I wanted to know.

When we reached Fort De Soto Park, I followed the signs and parked in a gravel lot near a wooden shack that offered kayaks for
rent. Both of us got out of the truck and headed toward the attendant, who took the cash and handed each of us a paddle and a life preserver.

“If you have suits, you might want to leave your clothes in the truck,” he suggested as he put the money in the register. “Unless you don’t mind being wet when you drive back to wherever you’re going.”

Back at the truck, I did my best not to stare as Morgan stripped to her bikini. I set her clothes and mine on the front seat and grabbed my sunglasses and a baseball hat out of the glove compartment. I watched as Morgan placed her phone into a waterproof case, something I hadn’t even thought to bring.

“Do you need sunscreen?” she asked, reminding me of something else I’d forgotten. “I brought some if you didn’t.”

“If you wouldn’t mind.”

She squeezed the tube, dispensing lotion into my hand, which I smeared all over my arms and face.

“Do you want me to get your back?” she asked.

I wasn’t about to say no—I liked the thought of her hands on me—so I nodded, and soon enough I felt the lotion being spread on my skin, a sensation more intimate than she probably assumed it was. “Do you need me to get your back, too?” I asked.

“I had Maria do it earlier, but thanks.”

When we were done, we put on the life jackets and carried the paddles toward the kayaks, which were already at the water’s edge. The attendant gave us a quick lesson about how to hold the paddles, the importance of long, smooth strokes, and how to paddle backward to help change direction. Finally, he issued directions to a channel that led through the mangroves.

“Will we capsize?” Morgan fretted as she stared out at the water.

“These kayaks are pretty wide, so I wouldn’t worry,” the man said. “Hop in and I’ll give you a shove.”

We each climbed into our own kayak, feeling it bobble slightly. At the man’s instruction, I bent my knees slightly and watched Morgan glide backward toward me after her kayak was launched. We turned and started paddling over the glassy water.

“It hardly wobbles at all,” Morgan announced, sounding surprised.

“That’s because you weigh fifty pounds.”

“I weigh a lot more than that.”

“How much more?”

“I’m definitely not going to answer that question.”

I chuckled, both of us settling in to enjoy the scenery. There were puffy clouds in the distance, but the sky was electric blue overhead, turning the water into a brilliant mirror. In the foliage we saw terns and ospreys, while turtles sunned themselves on partially submerged logs.

Beside me, Morgan paddled, effortlessly graceful.

“So…is this what you do on your dates back in North Carolina? Bring girls out to experience nature?”

“I’ve never been kayaking, either.”

“That didn’t answer my question.”

“I live in a small town. There’s not much to do other than enjoy nature. The river, a trip to the beach, walking trails through the forests. It’s not like there are a lot of clubs and bars where I live.”

Up ahead, a fish jumped, and Morgan pointed with her paddle.

“What kind of fish is that?”

“I’m guessing it’s a tarpon, but I can’t be certain. They’re supposed to be great fishing because they put up a good fight.”

“Do you fish?”

“I’ve been a few times, but it’s not my thing. Believe it or not, Paige enjoys it more than I do, but don’t ask me where she learned. It’s not something we did a lot when we were kids.”

“What’s it like living with your sister? I don’t think I know any brothers and sisters who live together as adults.”

Again, I wondered how much to tell her, before realizing it wasn’t the right time. “I know it might seem odd to other people,” I admitted. “Sometimes it seems odd to me, too. But then again, I’ve never lived alone, so I guess I’m just used to it. I don’t really think about it that much.”

“My sister and I are pretty close, too, but I don’t know if I want to live with her in a few years.”

“You said before that she’s nothing like you, but what does that mean?”

“She couldn’t care less about music or singing or dance or piano. She’s always been a gifted athlete, ever since she was little. She was a natural at every sport—soccer, softball, junior Olympics in track, and then finally volleyball, which turned out to be her passion. She was recruited by a dozen different colleges and will be starting at Stanford in the fall. It doesn’t hurt that she’s almost six feet tall and a straight-A student, of course.”

“She is tall….”

“I know. She gets it from my mom’s side. I’ve always been the runt of the litter in my family.”

“It must be such a challenge for you,” I offered, with a mock sad face. “If I had my guitar, I’d play you a mournful song.”

“Oh, shut up,” she retorted, splashing a little water on me with her paddle, making me duck.

We continued our easy paddling, enjoying the stillness. After a while, remembering the directions, I kept my eyes peeled for the opening that led to the channel through the mangroves. Eventually I spotted it and steered toward it. At the mouth, it
was nine or ten feet wide, but it narrowed quickly, making it difficult for us to paddle side by side.

“Do you want to go first or should I?”

She hesitated. “Normally I’d ask you to go first, in case there’s a bear or a giant python or whatever. But I might want you in the back in case I tip over. So you don’t leave me behind.”

“I wouldn’t leave you behind,” I protested. “Besides, I don’t think there are any bears here. And you’re probably not heavy enough to tip over the kayak even if you tried.”

“Which only leaves me worried about giant pythons.”

“I’m pretty sure that won’t be an issue, either. But just so you know, it’s usually the second or third person in line that gets attacked by a snake. The first one is already past the snake by the time it realizes what’s happening and gets ready to strike.”

“Then by all means, I’ll lead the way.”

I smiled, following a few feet behind her. Within a minute, the channel had narrowed even more and the branches above us formed something akin to a tunnel. The water was as smooth as a tabletop, the air cooled by the shade. Watching Morgan paddle, I noted that she moved with the unbroken ease of the dancer she was. In the trees on either side of us, crabs scurried on the branches. I was watching one of them when I heard her calling out to me.

“Are you still there?”

“I’m right behind you.”

“Just making sure.”

I don’t know how long the channel was, but we remained beneath the tunneled canopy of branches for ten or fifteen minutes. Occasionally she would point to something she’d seen—usually a crab or cluster of crabs—and call out to check if I was still behind her, which struck me as silly, because it would have been nearly impossible to turn around even if I wanted to. Mostly,
though, we paddled in silence in what seemed to be another world, both eerie and serene.

In time, the channel began to widen, more sunlight broke through the canopy, and, with a few more strokes, we emerged into a large estuary.

“That was awesome,” Morgan said, her eyes wide. “For a few minutes there, it felt like I was lost in time.”

“I had the same feeling.”

“Where are we?”

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
9.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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