Read Dreamland: A Novel Online

Authors: Nicholas Sparks

Dreamland: A Novel (13 page)

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
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“I have absolutely no idea.”

“Do you know how to get back?”

“Same way we got here, I guess.”

The sun had risen in the sky, and the sudden lack of shade made it feel even more intense. Morgan rested her paddle in her lap and continued taking in the scenery while I did my best not to stare at her exposed skin, glistening with a delicate sheen of sweat.

The current was weak but enough to allow our kayaks to drift farther apart. When I dipped my paddle into the water to close the gap, I noticed a shadow in the water maybe six feet behind Morgan. From my angle, it looked like a log or a rock, but strangely it also seemed to be moving.

A few quick strokes and I zipped past her. As soon as I peered over the side of my kayak into the water, I realized what I was seeing.

“What are you doing?” Morgan asked, rotating her kayak.

“It’s a manatee,” I responded in a hushed voice.

The top of it was maybe a yard below the surface, and I watched its huge, wide flippers paddle almost in slow motion. By then Morgan was approaching, excitement and apprehension in her expression.

“Are they dangerous?”

“No, but it’s probably illegal to get too close. I don’t know for sure, though.”

“I want to see,” she said, paddling in my direction. I leaned over and grabbed her kayak, slowing it until it stopped. Morgan stared into the water.

“It’s huge!” she whispered.

I had no idea how big manatees generally were, but it seemed to be only a little shorter in length than our kayak, maybe the size of a small hippo. Though they sometimes appeared in North Carolina, sightings were rare, and I’d never been that lucky. As I watched, Morgan found her phone and started to take photos. Examining them, she frowned.

“You can’t see it very well. It looks like a big gray blob.”

“Should I hop out and see if I could nudge it even closer to the surface?”

“Can you do that?”

“Not a chance.”

I watched as she rolled her eyes, then she suddenly got excited. “Oh wow! It’s surfacing! Can you push my kayak a bit?”

Using my paddle, I gave her kayak a gentle shove; she closed the distance to the manatee. Even though I was farther away, I realized that it did indeed seem to be rising. The amorphous shape began to clarify, revealing its head and the wide, circular fluke as it rotated first in one direction, then the opposite. My eyes drifted from it to Morgan, who was busy taking pictures as I maneuvered my kayak.

“It keeps moving farther away!” she lamented.

I used my oar to push her again. After a few more photos, she lowered the camera.

“Do you think we’re bothering it?”

“I’m sure they see kayaks out here all the time.” From the corner of my eye, I noticed another shadow off to the right.

“I think we’re about to have company. There’s another one.”

It was slightly smaller than the first one, and Morgan squinted to make it out.

“Do you think they’re related? Like a mama and her baby?” she asked.

“I haven’t the slightest idea.”

“Will there be more? Like, do they usually swim in pods or whatever they’re called?”

“Why do you keep asking me these questions? I’m a farmer from North Carolina. I know nothing about manatees.”

Her eyes flickered with mirth. “Would you mind taking off your glasses while I’ve got my phone out? And lifting the brim of your hat?”


“I want a photo of you in the kayak. You look all sporty.”

I complied and she took a photo, though the way her thumb was moving, it was probably closer to a dozen. She immediately scrolled through them. “Okay, perfect. There are some good ones here.”

We stayed with the manatees until they started migrating toward deeper water. Taking that as our cue to head back, I led the way to the opening.

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

“You lead this time. But like I told you before, don’t leave me behind.”

“What kind of guy do you think I am?”

“I’m still processing that question, but I promise to let you know the answer as soon as I do.”

I grinned, heading into the mangroves, paddling slowly and peeking over my shoulder regularly to make sure I wasn’t going
too fast. Meanwhile, Morgan kept up a stream of unanswerable questions about manatees. Did I think the two manatees were going to mate? When was the mating season? Did they spend most of their time in places like this or in the open ocean? In response, I told her that I’d google the answers and get back to her. To which she said, “Stop for a second.”

I did, rotating in my kayak. She had her phone out and was tapping, then began to scroll. “Manatees can weigh up to twelve hundred pounds,” she read aloud, “and they breed year-round, but most are born in the spring and summer. They generally inhabit marshy, coastal areas like this and can be found as far north as Virginia. They demonstrate abilities similar to dolphins’, so they’re smart. From the pictures on the Web, it looks like a pudgy dolphin crossed with a miniature whale.”

“Look at you, helping the uninformed.”

“Glad I could be of service,” she said. “Lead on.”

We continued to backtrack, and about halfway we encountered two kayakers approaching from the opposite direction. We moved to the right while ducking our heads, the other kayakers veered left and ducked as well, but there were still only inches between us when they floated past.

We finally emerged into the wider channel again, then further retraced our journey, talking easily, both of us recounting some of our favorite childhood antics. As we approached the shore, the attendant spotted us and directed us in, pulling our kayaks onto the hard wet dirt. I felt a bit stiff getting out, but Morgan seemed perfectly limber as we walked back to the truck.

Reaching into the cab, Morgan pulled out her tote.

“Turn around and don’t peek,” she warned, stepping away and leaving a whiff of coconut oil in the air. “My bottoms are wet, and I want to change into my shorts.”

I did as she asked and, at her signal, turned around and saw that she had also pulled her halter over her top.

“My turn,” I said, and we traded places; I changed into my dry shorts and tossed my wet suit into the truck bed. Morgan chose to keep her bikini bottoms on the seat beside her, and I noted that they were so small, I could have hung them from the rearview mirror.

I asked the attendant for directions to a picnic area, which turned out to be only a few minutes away. As I drove, I saw Morgan scrolling through her photos.

“I’m not sure whether I like the photos of the manatees better or the ones of you.”

“Hmm,” I said, tilting my head. “Is that a compliment or an insult?”

“Neither. I can always get more pictures of you, but I doubt that I’ll see another manatee while I’m here.”

“Are you hungry?”

“A little,” she said. “I had breakfast, so it’s not like I’m starving.”

“What did you have?”

“A green tea before rehearsal and a green drink afterward.”

I nodded, even though I didn’t have the slightest idea of what a green drink was.

I slowed the truck when I saw the picnic tables, then pulled into the parking area. None of the tables were occupied, and I zeroed in on one in the shade of a tree I couldn’t name but assumed was some sort of oak. Climbing out, I retrieved the cooler from the bed of the truck and started toward it, Morgan beside me. I plunked the cooler on the table and slid open the lid before pulling out grapes, nuts, cheese, and crackers, along with two crisp apples.

“I wasn’t sure what you might want, so I picked stuff at random.”

She reached for an apple. “This will be perfect,” she said. “Did you bring anything to drink?”

“Iced teas and water.”

“Did you happen to get a tea that’s sugar- and caffeine-free?”

“Actually, I did.” I handed the appropriate bottle to her, and she glanced at the label.

“Pomegranate and hibiscus,” she read. “Well done.”

Taking a seat, I cracked open a bottle of water, then reached for the nuts and the cheese. After a quick debate, I took some of the grapes and the other apple, as well.

“Unlike you, I didn’t have breakfast. I’m starved.”

“Eat what you want. You brought it all. I just wish you would have brought cookies, too. I’d love a good homemade cookie. Or even a couple of Oreos.”

“You eat cookies?”

“Of course I eat cookies. Doesn’t everyone?”

“You don’t look like you eat cookies.”

She rolled her eyes. “Okay, yes, I generally try to eat nutritious food, but I also have a crazy metabolism, so if I want a cookie or two, I’m going to enjoy it. If you ask me, there’s way too much pressure on women to be thin instead of strong and healthy. I knew too many girls growing up who had eating disorders.”

Once again, I was struck by not only her self-assurance but her thoughtfulness—especially for someone not long out of her teenage years—and I thought about those things while I opened the nuts and peeled the wrapper from the cheese. Morgan sipped her tea and ate her apple while we settled into easy conversation. I asked her about her hobbies and interests outside of music; I also answered a few more questions about the farm. In time, we
settled into silence. Other than the sound of birdcall, there was nothing, and I realized that I liked the fact that she didn’t feel the need to break the spell.

She took another sip of her tea, then I felt her eyes focus on me with renewed attention. “I have a question, but you don’t have to answer.”

“Ask whatever you’d like.”

“How did your mom die? I’m guessing it was cancer or an accident of some sort? Since she was obviously young?”

I said nothing right away. I’d known the question would come, because it almost always did. Usually I tried to deflect or give a vague answer, but I realized I wanted Morgan to know.

“My mom had always been a sad person, even as a teenager,” I began. “According to my aunt, anyway. She thinks it was depression, but from what I’ve been able to piece together since then, I’m pretty sure my mom was bipolar. I guess it doesn’t really matter, though. For whatever reason, when she was feeling particularly low, she slit her wrists in the bathtub. Paige was the one who found her.”

Morgan’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh my God. That’s awful! I’m so sorry….”

I nodded, momentarily flashing to the past, some memories vivid, other parts hazy to the point of disappearing. “We’d just come from school, and when we called for our mom, there was no answer. I guess Paige went to the bedroom to try to find her—I don’t really remember that part. But I do remember Paige grabbing me by the hand and dragging me over to the neighbor’s house. After that, I remember the police cars and the ambulance and all the neighbors standing outside. I don’t remember my aunt and uncle coming to get us, but I guess they had to have been there to take us to the farm.”

“Poor you,” she whispered, her face pale. “Poor Paige. I can’t
imagine finding my mom like that. Or even seeing something like that.”

“For sure.”

She was quiet before reaching for my hand. “Colby, I’m sorry for asking you about it. We were having such a nice day and I had to blow it.”

I shook my head, comforted by the warmth of her hand atop my own. “You didn’t blow it. Like I told you, it was a long time ago, and I don’t remember much. And besides, no matter what happens, I’m not going to forget that we saw manatees when we were out in the kayaks today.”

“So you forgive me?”

“There’s nothing to forgive,” I insisted.

She studied me from across the table, as though trying to decide whether she believed me. Finally, she let go of my hand and reached for the grapes, pulling off a small bunch. “The manatee
pretty cool,” she said, obviously attempting to change the subject. “Both of them were. It almost felt like we were on the nature channel.”

I smiled. “What would you like to do now? Should I get you back to your friends so you can head to the Dalí or go shopping?”

“You know what I’d really like to do?” She leaned forward, resting her arms on the picnic table.

“No idea.”

“I’d like to watch you write a song,” she said.

“Just like that? You think I can turn it on and off like a faucet?”

“You’re the one who told me that things just come to you.”

“What if nothing has come to me since the last one?”

“Then maybe think about how you felt when you saw the manatee.”

I squinted, skeptical. “That’s not really enough.”

“Then how about the two of us having a picnic?”

“I’m not sure that’s enough, either.”

At last, she rose from the table. She walked to my side and leaned over; before I realized what was happening, her lips pressed lightly against my own. It wasn’t a big kiss or even a particularly passionate kiss, but it was tender, and I could taste a hint of apple on lips so soft they seemed almost perfect. She pulled back with a slight smile on her face, knowing she’d caught me off guard.

“How about a song about a glorious morning and first kiss, then?”

I cleared my throat, reeling a bit from what had just happened. “Yeah,” I said. “That might work.”

On the drive back to
the condo, Morgan texted her friends furiously between occasional bouts of small talk.

“Keeping your friends up-to-date?” I asked.

“I told them we saw a manatee. Sent them pics.”

“Are they jealous?”

“They’re shopping, so I doubt it. After that, they’re planning to laze by the pool.”

“No Dalí?”

“I guess not. And they also mentioned visiting Busch Gardens in Tampa tomorrow.”

“That sounds fun.”

“Do you want to join us? We were thinking about heading out right after rehearsal, maybe around ten or so? And spend the day there?”

“My show is at four tomorrow, so I can’t.”

“Aww…” she said, sounding more disappointed than I’d expected.

Though we kept the conversation light on the drive, my mind
kept returning to the kiss and what, if anything, she’d meant by it. Was she really just trying to inspire a song? Had she felt bad about bringing up my mom? Or did she actually want to kiss me because she was attracted to me? As much as I tried, I couldn’t figure it out, and Morgan had been no help at all. Right after she’d pulled back from the kiss, she popped a grape into her mouth and returned to her spot across from me, as though nothing had happened. She then asked me my zodiac sign. When I told her I was a Leo, she noted that she was a Taurus, casually mentioning that people from those two signs find it difficult to get along with each other. She said it with a laugh, however, leaving me even more confused.

At the condo, I pulled into my usual parking spot, then grabbed the cooler and started up the wooden steps to the second floor. Morgan trailed behind me with her bag over her shoulder, our flip-flops slapping in unison.

“I don’t know why, but I thought you were renting a place right on the beach.”

“Not all of us have doctor parents who pay for accommodations.”

“That may be true, but you also said it was your first real vacation in years. It might have been worth springing for someplace with a sunset view.”

“I didn’t need one. I’m singing on the beach, so I get to see amazing sunsets all the time. This place is mainly for sleeping and changing and doing my laundry.”

“And writing songs,” she added.

“Only when the mood strikes.”

As I opened the door, I was thankful I’d tidied it up earlier and equally thankful I’d kept the air-conditioning on. It was hot and growing steadily warmer, the approaching summer already making its presence known.

I set the cooler inside the door, feeling nervous in a way I hadn’t expected. “Can I get you a drink? Water or beer? I think there’s another tea left in the cooler if you want that instead.”

“I’ll take a tea,” she said.

I pulled another tea out, and grabbed a bottle of water for myself. I watched as she twisted off the cap while checking out the living room.

“It’s nice here. I like the decor.”

It was standard Florida Beach Vacation Rental, with functional, inexpensive furniture, pastel pillows, and garage-sale-quality paintings of fish and boats and beaches hanging on the walls.

“Thanks,” I said. When I booked it, I’d barely perused the photos because I was mainly focused on the price.

She motioned to the music equipment and guitar heaped in the corner near the couch. “So this is where it happens, huh?”

“I usually sit on the couch, but really I can write anywhere as long as I can play the guitar while I do it.”

She placed her tea on the coffee table, then gingerly took a seat on the couch. She leaned back, then sat forward, shifting around on the cushions.

“What on earth are you doing?” I asked.

“I’m trying to catch whatever it is you have that makes writing songs so easy.”

I shook my head. “You’re funny.”

“I’m a lot of things,” she said. “But I also have a confession to make. I brought some of my work with me today. A song I’ve been working on, I mean. I have most of the lyrics and some of the music, I think, but I was wondering if you’d listen to what I’ve done. I’d like to get your impressions.”

“Show me what you’ve got,” I said, feeling a bit honored. I grabbed my guitar and took a seat next to her on the couch.
Meanwhile, Morgan set her phone on the coffee table before rummaging through her bag. She pulled out a spiral notebook, the kind high school and college students used. When she saw me staring at it, she shrugged.

“I like to use pen and paper,” she said. “Don’t judge me.”

“I’m not judging.” I leaned over to the end table and waved my own notebook at her. “I do the same thing.”

She smiled at that before setting the notebook on her lap. “Showing this to you makes me nervous.”


“I don’t know. Maybe because you’re so talented?”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond. Finally: “You don’t need to be nervous. I already think you’re amazing.”

I wasn’t sure where the words had come from; they seemed to have formed without conscious thought. For a moment, noting how she dropped her gaze, I wished I hadn’t said it, before realizing that she might actually be blushing. Not wanting to push, I drew a long breath.

“What genre of music are you interested in?” I asked. “And what kind of song are you thinking?”

I watched her shoulders drop a little before answering. “Right now I’m mostly interested in country-pop. Like early Taylor Swift? But probably more pop than country, if that makes any sense.”

“What have you got so far?”

“I have the top-line melody and some of the lyrics for the chorus. But I’m struggling with everything else.”

“All songs have to start somewhere. Do you have the music written down?”

“I made a recording on my phone. On the piano.” She opened the notebook to the appropriate page, then handed it to me and pointed. “Right here,” she said, before reaching for her phone.
After a beat, she pulled up the recording. “This is just for the chorus, okay?”

“Got it.”

She pressed
, and after a couple of seconds, piano chords in a minor key rang out, making me sit up and lean in. I assumed that I’d hear her singing on the recording, but she’d only recorded the piano accompaniment. Leaning toward me, her finger on the page with the scribbled lyrics, she whisper-sang along with the melody, almost as if she was embarrassed to be heard.

There wasn’t much to the song at that point—maybe ten or fifteen seconds—but it was indeed enough to remind me of something Taylor Swift might have written when she was starting out. It mirrored the thoughts of a woman who, after a breakup, realizes that she’s better than ever and is flourishing on her own. Not a new idea, but one that would resonate with an audience—particularly females—since it spoke to the universal truth of accepting oneself. It was a theme that never grew old, especially when set to a hooky melody that would make everyone want to sing along.

“What do you think?” she asked.

“It’s a fantastic start,” I said. “I really like it.”

“You’re just saying that.”

“I’m not,” I said. “What were you thinking of after this? Music or lyrics?”

“That’s kind of where I’m stuck. I’ve tried a lot of things, but nothing seems to be working. It’s like because I’m not sure of the lyrics, I’m not sure about the music, and vice versa.”

“That’s common in the early stages.”

“What do you do when it happens to you?”

“I start trying things, without editing or judging myself. I think it’s important to give every idea that comes to me a shot, no matter how weird,” I said. “So let’s do that, okay?”

I listened to the recording again, following along with the lyrics. I listened a third, then a fourth time, absently strumming my guitar. When I shut off the recording and played the music on my guitar alone, I let my instincts take over. Morgan stayed quiet as variations began to sprout and overlap in my head. I strung together a few new chords to follow the chorus, but they didn’t feel right—too generic. I tried again, but the next attempt felt awkward. I kept noodling and experimenting for a while, forgetting Morgan’s presence as I searched for those critical few bars. Eventually I found the chord progression that seemed to work, then tricked out the rhythm to give it more syncopation
I stopped and played it again and was suddenly sure that the song could be very commercial—maybe even a hit
I ran through it again with greater confidence, catching Morgan’s eye. Before I could ask what she thought, she clapped her hands, bouncing a little in her seat.

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “That was amazing!”

“You like it?” I grinned.

“I love it, but watching you and your process was the best part. Hearing you experiment until you found what worked.”

“I only just started.”

“You’ve been playing for almost twenty minutes.”

As usual, time had stopped for me while I lost myself in the music. “But you’re sure you liked it?”

“Loved it. And it even gave me some new ideas for the lyrics.”

“Like what?” I asked.

She launched into the story she wanted to tell and the feeling she wanted to capture. She improvised a couple of catchy phrases that struck me as defiant yet upbeat with a definite hook, and I found myself wondering why I hadn’t gone in that direction. We also played around with the tempo and rhythm, and as we
brainstormed I could tell she had far more of a gift than she gave herself credit for. Her instinct for commercial music was well honed, and when she broke down the lyrics and the melody for the first stanza, the floodgates opened and the song took on a momentum of its own. An hour passed, then another. As we worked, I could feel her excitement growing. “Yes!” she’d exclaim. “Just like that!” Or “Can you try something like this?” while humming a bar or two. Or “How about this for the lyrics?” And every now and then, she’d have me sing the song from the beginning. She sat close to me, her leg warm against my own as she scribbled lyrics in the notebook, crossing out rejected words or phrases. Little by little we worked our way to the finish, fading out in the same minor key in which the song opened. By the time we stopped, the sky beyond the sliding glass door had turned from blue to white, shot through with pink highlights. When she turned to me, she couldn’t hide her joy.

“I can’t believe it.”

“It went well,” I said, meaning it.

“I still want to hear it one more time from the beginning. I want to record the whole thing in one go, too, so I don’t forget.”

“You won’t forget.”

“You might not, but I’m taking no chances.” She snapped a photo of the lyrics, then readied the phone for a recording. “Okay,” she concluded, “let’s hear it from the top.”

“How about you sing this time, instead of me? It’s your song.”

“It’s our song,” she protested. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

I shook my head. “That’s where you’re wrong. I might have clarified your thoughts, but it was your idea, your story, and, for the most part, your music. That song has been inside you for a while. All I did was help you allow it to come out.”

Her expression was skeptical. “I think you’re wrong.”

“Read the lyrics,” I insisted, tapping the page. “Show me one line that was all mine.”

She knew there weren’t any; I might have added a few words here and there, but that was more about editing than creating, and she’d come up with the hook and the easily remembered phrases.

“Okay, but the music was really yours.”

“You had it all, you just needed help breaking the logjam. Every phrase and key change, you led.” I pressed on. “Morgan, I’ve never written a country-pop song before. It’s not what I do. Trust me—this song is yours, not ours. We both know it’s a song I’d never be able to write, if only because I’m a guy.”

“That I do accept,” she said, laughing in agreement before growing quiet again. “I still can’t believe how fast it all came together,” she murmured. “I’ve been working on that song on and off for weeks. I’d almost given up, until today.”

“That happens to me, too,” I admitted, nodding. “I’ve finally accepted the idea that songs come only when they’re ready to come, never before that. I’m just glad I could be part of it.”

She smiled before placing a hand on my knee. “Thank you,” she said, her voice husky with—what? Gratitude? Wonder? “This was…the best learning experience I’ve ever had.”

“You’re welcome. And now I want to hear you sing it.”


“It’s your song. You should sing it.”

“It’s been a long day,” she demurred. “My voice will sound tired.”

“Stop making excuses.”

While she hesitated, her hand remained on my knee, its warmth spreading through me.

“Okay,” she relented, clearing her throat. Removing her hand,
she reached for the notebook. “Just give me a little bit to get ready.”

I watched as she rose from the couch and moved to the center of the room. “Hit the
button when I’m ready, okay?” she directed.

She clasped her hands in front of her, as though steeling herself. When she finally raised the notebook and nodded, I pressed
on her phone, then set it on the coffee table between us.

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
4.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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