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Authors: Nicholas Sparks

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BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
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By that point, Paige was working with a local artist who specialized in stained glass. She’d worked at the shop part-time while she was in high school, but by graduation she was already crafting her own Tiffany-inspired lamps. Unlike me, Paige got pretty good grades all along, but she had no desire to go to college. Instead, she worked on building her business and eventually met a guy and fell in love. She left the farm, moved out of state, and got married. I hardly heard from her during those years after she left; even after she had a baby, I only glimpsed her on the rare FaceTime call, looking tired and holding her crying kid. For the
first time in my life, it felt as though no one was really watching out for me.

Add all that up—my overworked aunt and uncle, my lack of interest in school, my sister moving away, and chores I had come to hate—and it’s not surprising that I began to rebel. As soon as I started high school, I fell in with a group of guys with the same tendencies, and we egged one another on. At first, it was little things—throwing rocks through the windows of abandoned houses, prank phone calls in the middle of the night, stealing the occasional candy bar from a convenience store—but within a few months, one of those friends stole a bottle of gin from his dad’s liquor cabinet. We met by the river and passed the bottle back and forth. I had way too much and threw up for the rest of the night, and since I’m honest, I’ll admit I didn’t learn the appropriate lesson. Instead of waving off the bottle whenever it came my way, I spent countless weekends with my brain blurry at the edges. My grades remained in the tank, and I began to skip certain chores. I’m not proud of who I was back then, but I also know it’s impossible to change the past.

Right after my sophomore year began, however, my life took another turn. I’d drifted away from my loser friends by then, and I heard through the grapevine that a local band needed a new guitarist. Why not? I figured. I was only fifteen, and when I showed up to audition, I saw the band members—all in their twenties—smothering their laughter. I ignored them, plugged in my electric guitar, and played Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” solo. Ask anyone in the know, and they’ll tell you it’s not easy. Long story short, I ended up playing my first gig with them the following weekend, after hearing the entire set for the first time in the single rehearsal we had beforehand. Compared to them—with their piercings and tattoos and either long or spiked bleached
hair—I resembled a choirboy, so they kept me stationed in the back near the drummer, even during my solos.

If music wasn’t all-consuming before, it quickly became that way. I stopped cutting my hair, got illegal tattoos, and eventually the band let me start performing out front. At the farm, I pretty much quit doing any chores whatsoever. My aunt and uncle were at a loss, so they chose to ignore me, which kept our conflicts to a minimum. We even stopped eating together. I devoted more time to music, fantasizing about playing to massive crowds in sold-out venues.

In retrospect, I probably should have known it would never work out, since the band wasn’t all that good. All of our songs were in the screamy, post-punk vein, and while some people enjoyed the music, I’m pretty sure most of the audiences we played to in our part of eastern North Carolina weren’t dazzled. Nonetheless, we managed to find a tiny niche, and until almost the end of my senior year in high school, we played twenty or twenty-five weekends a year in dives as far away as Charlotte.

But there was friction in the band, and it grew worse over time. The lead singer insisted we play only the songs he’d written, and while it might not sound like a big deal, ego has killed more bands than just about anything. Adding insult to injury, the rest of us knew that most of his songs were mediocre. Eventually he announced that he was moving to Los Angeles to make it on his own, since none of us appreciated his genius. As soon as he stomped off, the drummer—at twenty-seven, he was the oldest among us—announced that he was quitting, as well, which wasn’t a surprise, either, since his girlfriend had been pushing him to settle down for a while. As he put away his kit and loaded it in the car, the other three of us nodded at one another, knowing it was over, and packed up. After that night, I never spoke to any of them again.

Strangely, I was less depressed than simply lost. As much as I’d enjoyed performing, there was too much drama and too little momentum that might lead the band anywhere. At the same time, I had no idea what to do with my life, so I just went through the motions. I graduated high school—probably because the teachers didn’t want to have to deal with me for another year—and spent a lot of time in my room, writing music and recording songs I posted to Spotify and Instagram and YouTube. No one seemed to care. Little by little, I began pitching in at the farm again, though it was apparent that my aunt and uncle had long since given up on me. More important, I started to take stock of my life, especially as I spent more time on the property. As self-absorbed as I’d been, even I could see that my aunt and uncle were getting older and that the farm was struggling. When I’d first arrived as a child, the farm grew corn, cotton, blueberries, tobacco, and we raised thousands of chickens for processing. All that had changed in the past few years. Bad crops and bad business decisions and bad prices and bad loans meant that a good portion of the original land had been either sold or leased to our neighbors. I wondered how I could have missed the changes as they’d been happening, even though I knew the answer.

Then, on a warm August morning, my uncle had a massive heart attack while walking toward the tractor. His left anterior descending artery was blocked at the origin; as the folks at the hospital explained, this kind of heart attack is often referred to as a widow-maker, because the odds of survival are incredibly slim. Maybe it was all the buttered bread he ate at dinners, but he died even before the ambulance arrived. My aunt was the one who found him, and I’ve never heard anyone scream and wail the way she did that morning.

Paige came home for the service and stayed for a little while, having left her child with her husband and mother-in-law. I
worried that her return would create more strife, but my sister seemed to recognize that something had broken inside my aunt in the same way my sister sometimes felt broken. It’s impossible to know what goes on in people’s private lives, but because I’d never seen my aunt or uncle act all that romantic toward each other, I guess I’d grown up thinking that they were more like business partners than deeply in love. Obviously, I was wrong about that. To my eyes, my aunt seemed almost shrunken in the aftermath. She barely ate and carried a handkerchief to soak up her constant stream of tears. Paige listened to familiar stories for hours, kept up the house, and made sure the employees at the farm adhered to a schedule. But she couldn’t stay forever, and after she left, I suddenly found myself trying to take care of things in the same way my sister had been doing.

In addition to managing the farm and making sure my aunt was eating enough, I began leafing through the pile of invoices and records on my uncle’s desk. Even my rudimentary math skills let me know the whole operation was a mess. Though the tobacco crop still made money, the chickens, corn, and cotton had become steadily losing propositions. To stave off a looming bankruptcy, my uncle had already arranged to lease more land to the neighbors. While that would solve the immediate problem, I knew it would leave the farm with a bigger long-term issue. My initial reaction was to urge my aunt to sell the rest of the farm outright so she could buy a small house and retire, but she nixed that idea immediately. Around that same time, I also found clippings from various magazines and newsletters that my uncle had collected, which discussed the market for healthier and more-exotic food options, along with notes and revenue projections he’d already completed. My uncle may have been quiet and not much of a businessman overall, but he’d clearly been considering changes. I discussed those with my aunt, and she eventually
agreed that the only option was to put my uncle’s plans in motion.

We didn’t have the money to do much right off the bat, but over the last seven years, with tremendous effort, risks, challenges, financial help from Paige, occasional lucky breaks, and way too many sleepless nights, we slowly transitioned from raising chickens for processing to specializing in organic cage-free eggs, which have a much higher profit margin; we offer them to grocery stores throughout North and South Carolina. While we still grow tobacco, we used the remaining land to concentrate on heirloom tomatoes, the kind that are popular in upscale restaurants and pricey grocery stores, and the margin on those has proved to be substantial, as well. Four years ago, the farm turned a profit for the first time in ages, and we began to lower our debt to reasonable levels. We even took back some of the leases from our neighbors, so the farm is actually growing again, and last year the farm earned more than ever.

Like I said, I’m pretty good at what I do.

What I am is a farmer.

Yeah, I know. My career path
sometimes strikes even me as unlikely, especially since I’d spent years of my life begrudging pretty much everything associated with the farm. Over time, I’ve come to accept the notion that we don’t always get to choose our paths in life; sometimes, they choose us.

I’m also glad I’ve been able to help my aunt. Paige is proud of me, and I should know, since we see a lot of each other these days. Her marriage came to a terrible end—pretty much the worst imaginable—and she moved back to the farm six years ago. For a while we all lived in the house like the old days, but it didn’t take long to realize sharing a room with my sister—as adults—wasn’t something that either Paige or I wanted to do. In the end, I built my aunt a smaller, more manageable house across the road, at the far corner of the property. Now my sister and I live together, which might sound strange to some people, but I enjoy it, since she’s still my best friend in the world. She does her stained-glass thing in the barn, I farm, and we eat together a few times a week. She’s become a fairly decent cook, and when we
take our seats at the table, I’m sometimes reminded of all the dinners we had growing up.

In other words, my life is pretty good these days, but here’s the thing: When I tell people I’m a farmer, most of them tilt their heads and look at me kind of funny. More often than not, they have no idea what to say next. If I tell people that my family owns a farm, however, they brighten and smile and start asking questions. Why the difference, I’m not exactly sure, but it’s happened a few times since I arrived in Florida. Sometimes after a show, people will come up to me and start a conversation, and once they realize that I’m a nobody in music, the subject eventually shifts to what I do for a living. Depending on whether I want the conversation to continue, I’ve learned to either say that I’m a farmer or that I own a farm.

Despite our success over the last few years, the stress of the farm can be wearying. Daily decisions often have longer-term consequences, and every choice is linked to another. Do I bring the tractor in for repairs, so I have more time to focus on customers, or do I repair it myself, to save the thousand dollars? Do I expand the offering of heirloom tomatoes, or specialize in just a few and find more outlets? Mother Nature, too, is capricious, and while you can make a decision that seems correct at the time, sometimes bad things happen anyway. Will the heaters function properly so the chickens will be warm enough in the rare times it snows? Will the hurricane pass us by, or will the wind and rain ruin the crops? Every day, I’m in charge of growing and raising healthy crops and chickens, and every day, something comes up that adds to the challenge. While things are constantly growing, other things are always decaying, and striving for that perfect balance sometimes feels like a nearly impossible task. I could work twenty-four hours a day and still never say to myself,
That’s it. There’s nothing more to be done.

I mention all this only to explain why this three-week trip to Florida is the first real break I’ve had in seven years. Paige, my aunt, and the general manager insisted that I go. Before coming here, I’d never taken so much as a single week off, and I can count on one hand the number of weekends I forced myself to get away from it all. Thoughts of the farm intrude regularly; in the first week, I must have called my aunt ten times to check in on how things were going. She finally forbade me to call anymore. Between her and the general manager, they could handle it, she said, so in the last three days I haven’t called at all, even when the urge has felt almost overwhelming. Nor have I called Paige. She received a fairly substantial order right before I left, and I already knew she wouldn’t answer when in furious work mode, all of which means that, in addition to vacation, I’m alone with my thoughts for the first time in what seems like forever.

I’m pretty sure my girlfriend, Michelle, would have liked this relaxed and healthy, nonworking version of me. Or, rather, my ex-girlfriend. Michelle always complained that I focused on the needs of the farm more than my own life. I’d known her since high school—barely, since she was dating one of the football players and was two years older than me—but she’d always been friendly when we passed each other in the hallways, even though she was the prettiest girl in school. She vanished from my life for a few years before we ran into each other again, at a party after she graduated from college. She’d become a nurse and had taken a job at Vidant Medical Center, but she moved back in with her parents in the hopes of saving enough money for a down payment on a condominium in Greenville. That initial conversation led to a first date, then a second one, and for the two years we dated, I considered myself lucky. She was smart and responsible and had a good sense of humor, but she worked nights and I worked constantly, leaving us with little time to spend with each
other. I want to believe that we could have worked past that, but I eventually realized that while I liked her, I didn’t love her. I’m pretty sure she felt the same about me, and once she finally bought her condo, seeing each other became all but impossible. There was no messy breakup, no anger or fighting or name-calling; rather, we both started texting or calling less, until it reached a point where we hadn’t so much as touched base in a couple of weeks. Even though we hadn’t formally ended things, both of us knew it was over. A few months later she met someone else, and about a year ago I saw on her Instagram page that she’d just gotten engaged. To make things easier, I stopped following her on social media, deleted her contact from my phone, and I haven’t heard from her since.

I’ve found myself thinking about her more than usual down here, perhaps because couples seem to be everywhere. They’re at my shows, they’re holding hands as they walk the beach, they’re sitting across from each other at dinner while gazing into each other’s eyes. There are families here, too, of course, but not as many as I thought there would be. I don’t know the Florida school schedule, but I figure the kids must still be in their classrooms.

I did, however, notice a group of youngish women yesterday, a few hours before my show. It was early afternoon, and I was walking near the water’s edge after lunch. It was hot and sunny, with enough humidity to make the air feel sticky, so I’d removed my shirt, using it to wipe the sweat from my face. As I neared the Don CeSar, a gray object surfaced and disappeared in the water just beyond the small breakers, followed quickly by another. It took me a few seconds to recognize that it was a pod of dolphins languidly moving parallel to the shoreline. I stopped to watch, as I’d never seen one in the wild before. I was following their progress when I heard the girls approach and stop a few yards away.

The four of them were chattering loudly, and I did a double take when I noticed how startlingly attractive they all were. They looked ready for a photo shoot, with colorful swimwear and perfect teeth that flashed when they laughed, making me think all of them had spent plenty of time at the orthodontist as teenagers. I suspected they were younger than me by a few years, probably college students on break.

As I turned my attention back to the dolphins, one of the women gasped and pointed; from the corner of my eye, I saw the rest of them stare in the same direction. Though I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, they weren’t exactly quiet.

“Is that a shark?” one of them asked.

“It’s probably a dolphin,” another answered.

“But I see a fin.”

“Dolphins have dorsal fins, too….”

I smiled inwardly, thinking that maybe I hadn’t missed much by not going to college. Predictably, they started posing for selfies, trying to capture the dolphins in the background. After a while they began making the kinds of silly faces common on social media: the
kissy face,
the ecstatic
we’re-having-such-a-great-time
group shot, and the serious
pretend-I’m-a-supermodel
look, which Michelle used to refer to as the
dead-fish
expression. Recalling it made me snort under my breath.

One of the girls must have heard me, because she suddenly glanced in my direction. I pointedly avoided eye contact, focusing on the dolphins as they drifted by. When they eventually turned toward deeper water, I figured it was time for me to head back. I veered around the women—three of whom were still taking and examining their selfies—but the same one who’d glanced toward me caught and held my gaze.

“Nice tats,” she offered when I was close, and I’ll admit her comment caught me off guard. She wasn’t exactly flirting, but she
seemed slightly amused. For a moment I debated whether to stop and introduce myself, but that feeling lasted only a second. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize she was out of my league, so I flashed a quick smile and moved past.

When she arched an eyebrow at my lack of response, I had the feeling that she’d known exactly what I was thinking. She returned her attention to her friends, and I kept walking, fighting the urge to turn around. The more I tried not to look, the harder it became; finally, I allowed myself another quick peek.

Apparently, the girl had been waiting for me to do just that. She still wore the same expression of amusement, and when she offered a knowing smile, I turned and kept going, feeling a flush creep up my neck that had nothing to do with the sun.

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
4.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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