Authors: Nicholas Sparks
It was dark when she
began to stir, the flickers of the television making her squint and then blink before finally opening her eyes. The world beyond the windows was black, the room illuminated by moving light.
“Cartoons,” she muttered.
The sound of Tommie’s voice roused her, and more of the room came into focus. The cabinet stood at a cockeyed angle, and there were books and knickknacks piled throughout the room. When Tommie turned toward her, she could see the whites of his eyes, even though the rest of him remained shadowy, like a ghost.
“How long have I been sleeping?” she croaked.
“A long time,” he said. “I tried to wake you, but it didn’t work.”
“Sorry.” She pressed her eyelids, then pulled her hair away from her face, trying to summon enough blood flow to actually sit up. All she wanted to do was close her eyes, but when she did, she heard Tommie again.
His voice prompted her to focus, and taking a deep breath, she was able to shift her legs off the couch and sit up. Fighting the urge to lie back down, she clasped her hands, her mind and body still resisting her command to rise. On the television, SpongeBob was talking to a starfish; there was an apple core on the rug already turning brown, along with a second one. She thought to pick them up—or at least tell Tommie to run them to the garbage—but realized she didn’t care. She felt like she could sleep for a thousand years, but her son needed to eat. Using the armrest, she pushed herself upward but had to stand in place when she was struck by a wave of dizziness. When it finally passed, she shuffled to the kitchen.
Shunning the overhead light, she turned on the one above the stove. Even that hurt her eyes, and as she made her way to the sink, she nearly stumbled into the pile in front of it before catching herself. She squinted at the clock, trying to calculate how long she’d been asleep. With her mind still swimmy, she couldn’t remember what time the bus had dropped Tommie off. It was either a quarter until four or a quarter past four, but either way, it must now be coming up on Tommie’s bedtime.
He needs to eat.
She felt disconnected from her body as she pulled out a pot and filled it with warm water to thaw a couple of chicken drumsticks. Somehow, she maintained enough muscle control to chop cauliflower and carrots, then tossed them on a baking sheet, which went into the oven. Closing her eyes, she leaned against the refrigerator, her body shutting down until she suddenly remembered what had happened earlier. Though the images of the drugs and guns and the man in the truck were dreamlike, they were enough to make her flinch.
“Tommie?” she called out, trying to keep her voice steady.
“Did anyone come by while I was sleeping?”
“Did you see a truck pull up in the driveway?”
She glanced out the window, trying to understand why the man hadn’t come back, but her thoughts remained gummy, everything sort of tangling together. Continuing to lean against the refrigerator, she shut her eyes again. The warning signals she’d perceived earlier felt far away, like they related to someone else, but she had enough sense to remove the rest of the chicken and hamburger from the freezer so it would thaw, as well.
After that, she forced herself to be the mother she knew she was. Though her movements were slow and robotic, she cooked the drumsticks in the cast-iron frying pan, her mind blank while she struggled to keep her eyes open. After loading the food onto two plates, she called for Tommie and heard the television go off before he joined her at the table. Exhaustion smothered her appetite, so she moved most of the contents of her plate onto Tommie’s. She yawned once and then repeatedly, and when Tommie finished, she sent him upstairs to take a bath. She didn’t bother to clear the dishes. Instead, she stepped out onto the front porch.
In the silver moonlight, she could see the barn, dark and ominous, but the fear felt hallucinatory. From upstairs, she could hear Tommie talking to himself as he splashed in the tub. She reminded herself that they had to escape, but there was so much to do beforehand to make that possible and she couldn’t summon the energy necessary to start. Dragging her feet, she left the porch and went upstairs. Her legs were heavy and felt uncoordinated, almost as though she was sleepwalking.
In the bathroom, Tommie had already gotten out and wrapped himself in a towel. His wet hair sprouted in all directions, and
when he turned, she saw the infant and toddler he once had been, and something ached inside.
“Did you remember to shampoo your hair?”
“I’m not a baby anymore.”
Her thoughts continued to drift of their own volition, slowing further as she followed him to his room. For an instant, the walls were light blue with wallpaper borders that showed old-fashioned scenes from the country, then the room changed back to reality. She found him a clean shirt and underwear, thinking how much she loved him as he crawled into bed. She used her fingers to straighten his hair before kissing him on the cheek.
Zombie-like, she returned to the darkened main floor. Only the light above the stove continued to provide enough of a glow to keep her from stumbling on the clutter.
I have to get ready,
she thought, eyeing the chicken and hamburger. But she was operating on autopilot now, no longer in conscious control of her body, and she left the kitchen, heading to the living room. As she lay down on the couch, her mind blank, her eyes were already closing again.
For an instant, she imagined a pirate falling from the Empire State Building, and then all at once, she was asleep.
She didn’t wake until
she heard Tommie coming downstairs, her eyes blinking open. Grayish light was streaming through the windows. As Beverly began to stretch, all that had happened in the last few days came rushing back, the weight of it so oppressive she felt like crying.
She recalled that her mom used to cry a lot in the mornings, memories of her red eyes and the way she’d wrap her arms around her own waist as though trying to hold herself together still vivid. Beverly never knew what to do at times like that, never knew how to make her mom feel better. Instead, she would keep her distance. She’d make her own breakfast and get herself off to school and then, while the teacher droned on, spend the rest of the day at her desk wondering what she’d done to make her mom so upset.
I am not my mother,
Beverly reminded herself. Instead, focusing on Tommie, she sat up, struggling to keep the tears at bay and somehow succeeding. By then Tommie had reached the kitchen. Beverly went to join him, recognizing that they’d somehow made
it safely through another night. That should have made her feel better, but it didn’t; in the back of her mind, she felt a newfound sense of dread, as though the worst was yet to come.
“Did I miss the bus?” Tommie asked, obviously unaware of how she was feeling. “I don’t want to be late.”
It’s field day.
Beverly eyed the clock. “You’ll be fine. Let’s get you some breakfast, though.”
Her muscles were stiff as she moved to the cupboards. She made Tommie a bowl of cereal and brought it to the table, then flattened his cowlick using the wax on the counter. She plopped into the chair across from him, watching as he started to eat, her mind trying to shrug off the effects of sleep but wandering from the past to the future. Staring at her son, she couldn’t help feeling that Tommie deserved so much better. She should have provided him with a normal home and a normal life, but now she was about to uproot him again, because she’d made mistakes that a good mother wouldn’t have made. She wondered whether to warn him now or simply wake him in the middle of the night, as she had the last time. She wondered where they would eventually end up and whether she’d find work and how long it would be until their lives felt remotely normal again. She’d tried to do everything right, but somehow it had all gone wrong.
It wasn’t fair. No one deserved a life like she was giving her son, and her eyes welled with tears. She turned away, not wanting Tommie to see them.
“Do you like it here?” she asked, her mind continuing to wander. “Sometimes I think it would be nice to live near the beach. Do you remember when we went to the beach? When you were little?”
He’d been young then, still a toddler, and she’d put so much sunscreen on him that the sand stuck to him like glue. They built sandcastles and splashed at the water’s edge and tossed grapes for
the seagulls, which made Tommie scream with laughter as the birds flocked from one spot to the next. Gary had decided to go golfing instead, and she recalled thinking even then that Tommie was all she’d ever need.
“That was a wonderful day,” she reminisced, knowing she was talking to herself more than to him. “We had so much fun—maybe we should try to do that again. Find a place close to the beach, where we could play in the sand or watch the sun go down over the water. Sometimes I think I could just sit and listen to the waves for hours. Wouldn’t that be perfect?”
Tommie looked at her. “Amelia said that I could sit next to her on the bus today.”
At his comment, Beverly knew her son had missed the hint, and her melancholy deepened as she rose from the table. After swiping at her tears, she made him a sandwich, adding an apple to his lunch, making sure to put it in his backpack. Yesterday felt almost like a lifetime ago.
By then, Tommie was just about finished. He drank the remaining milk from the bowl, leaving a milk mustache. She wiped his lips. “You know I love you, right?”
When Tommie nodded, she thought again that she should tell him the truth, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, she dropped to one knee, feeling wobbly and hating herself for all she was about to put him through.
“Let me double-knot your shoes so they don’t come untied when you’re running around.”
When she finished, she looped the backpack over his shoulders and they left the house, their timing perfect. By the time they reached the road, the bus was already slowing to a stop. She kissed Tommie on the cheek, then walked with him toward the doors of the bus just as they swung open. She watched him
ascend the steps and offered a quick final wave, but with his back to her, Tommie didn’t seem to notice.
As she turned and headed back toward the house, she saw it as she had the first time, when she thought that she could make it a home. She remembered walking through and thinking that painting the kitchen walls yellow would be perfect. She’d allowed herself to believe that everything was going to turn out okay, but as she continued to stare, she saw it now for the trap that it was, its sole purpose to dangle a dream in front of her, only to crush it.
Dwelling on the unfairness of it all and the mistakes she’d made, she enumerated her failures as a mother. And this time, when the tears started anew, she barely made it to the couch, knowing she couldn’t stop them.
By the time she
finished weeping, she was wearied and spent. Wiping her face with the bottom of her shirt, she noticed numerous brown smudges on the fabric and realized that she was looking at dirt.
From the digging when I hid the guns.
Her face must have been filthy—no surprise since she hadn’t showered—and she wondered why Tommie hadn’t said anything about it. He had to have noticed, and she suspected that he was reacting just as she had as a child, when she didn’t understand what was going on with her mom. In those moments, it was better to pretend that everything was fine, even when frightened. It was no wonder that Tommie hadn’t spoken at dinner and barely glanced at her over breakfast. He’d been afraid for her and of her, and the realization made her throat tighten again. It was another mistake, one in a long line of mistakes she’d made recently.
The crying had sapped her energy, and rising from the couch was strangely difficult. She lurched to the kitchen and turned on
the faucet. Cupping her hands to wash her face, she could feel flecks of dirt at her hairline and in her ears, even in her eyelashes. A mirror would help, but going upstairs to the bathroom to check would take too much effort.
She eyed the food she’d taken from the freezer the night before, then removed the plastic wrap and set it all on a plate, thinking it would be one less thing she had to do later. She found a large pot in one of the open drawers. Adding water, she began soaking the beans. None of it would be ready to cook for a couple of hours. She considered starting the sandwiches, but as she reached for the loaf of bread, she flashed to an image of Tommie as he sat between her and the old woman in the station wagon, when he’d stared at her with nothing but love and trust in his eyes, and it broke her heart.
The knowledge made her ache, and her thoughts began to scatter again. She remembered Tommie as an infant, when she rocked him late at night; she reflected on the quiet way he now seemed to move through the world. She decided to make the sandwiches later, and though she didn’t understand her reason, she didn’t bother to question it. She wondered again who in their right mind would ever choose orange walls for a kitchen.
Her thoughts continued to pinball, lighting up one memory after the other, and she knew the only way to shut them down was to go back to sleep. Instead, she pulled the carrots from the fridge and set them on the counter before rummaging through the drawers, trying to find the peeler. She couldn’t find it, so she settled for a butcher knife, her hands trembling. She longed for sleep again and understood that it had been the only time in the last few days when she felt safe and hadn’t been burdened by worries.
Her movements grew more uncoordinated until her hand
suddenly slipped and the blade cut deep into her forefinger, bringing her back to the present. She yelped—screamed, really—watching as a bead of blood appeared, and then the long gash turned completely red. Blood splattered to the counter and onto her shirt. She pinched the gash with her free hand, momentarily mesmerized, before the sting rose in full fury, morphing into searing pain. When she let her finger go, blood flowed onto the counter. With her uninjured hand, she turned on the faucet, watched the faded-pink water flow down the drain, then shut it off. She used the bottom of the shirt to wrap her finger, thinking that if she were someone else who lived a different life, she’d hop in the car and drive to the urgent care to get stitches.
But that wasn’t her life, not anymore, and her eyes filled with tears.
One step at a time,
she told herself. She needed gauze and tape but doubted there was any in the house. There might be Band-Aids in one of the bathrooms, she reasoned, heading up the stairs to the bathroom Tommie used. In the second drawer down, she got lucky.
She pulled out a Band-Aid, but she needed both hands to open it, and blood splattered onto the counter. The wrapping, sticky and wet with blood, made the adhesive worthless. She tried again with another Band-Aid and got the same result. She tried again and again, failing each time, bloody wrappers and Band-Aids dropping to the floor. Finally, she got two of the Band-Aids ready, rinsed the blood from her hand and finger, and dried it using her shirt, squeezing tightly. She applied the first one, followed quickly by the second one. That gave her the time she needed to apply more, and it seemed to do the trick. Her finger throbbed with its own heartbeat as she went downstairs.
The living room and the hallway and the kitchen were wrecks, and the thought of having to clean it all and make the food and pack and escape and somehow find a way to start a new life was
simply too much. Her mind shut down like an overloaded circuit, leaving nothing but sadness in its wake.
Exhausted, she went to the couch and made herself comfortable. Closing her eyes, her worries and fears faded away completely the instant she fell asleep.