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Authors: Nicholas Sparks

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BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
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Sitting here in my beach chair,
I’ll admit that my thoughts have drifted back to my encounter with the girl. I wasn’t exactly looking for her or her friends, but I wasn’t opposed to the idea, either, which is why I’d hauled my chair and cooler all the way down the beach in the first place. So far no luck, but I reminded myself that I’d had a pretty good day no matter what happened. In the morning, I’d gone for a run on the beach, then inhaled some fish tacos at a lunch spot called the Toasted Monkey. After that, with nothing pressing on my agenda, I eventually ended up here. I suppose I could have done something more productive than practically beg for skin cancer. Ray had mentioned there was some good kayaking at Fort De Soto Park, and before I left home, Paige had reminded me to check out the Dalí, a local museum dedicated to the works of Salvador Dalí. I guess she’d visited Tripadvisor or whatever, and I told her I’d add it to my itinerary, although sipping a cold beer and doing my best impression of a certified man of leisure felt far more compelling, at least to my way of thinking.

With the sun finally beginning to drift lower in the sky, I lifted the lid to the cooler and pulled out my second—and likely last—beer of the day. I figured I’d sip on it for a while, maybe even stay long enough to enjoy the sunset, then make my way to Sandbar Bill’s, a cool place up the beach that happened to serve the best cheeseburgers around. As to what I would do after that, I wasn’t quite sure. I supposed I could do some barhopping in downtown St. Petersburg, but because it was Saturday night, it would probably be crowded, and I wasn’t sure I was in the mood for that. Which left what? Work on a song? Watch some Netflix, like Paige and I sometimes did? Read one of the books I’d brought with me but hadn’t yet started? I figured I’d play it by ear.

I twisted off the cap, surprised that the beach was still as crowded as when I’d arrived. Hotel guests from the Don CeSar reclined in lounge chairs shaded by umbrellas; along the beach, dozens of visitors lay on colorful towels. At the water’s edge, some little kids were building a sandcastle; a woman was walking a dog whose tongue lolled almost to his paws. The music from the pool area continued behind me, making me wince at the occasional off-key note.

As it happened, I neither heard nor saw her approach. All I knew was that someone was suddenly hovering above me, casting a shadow over my face. When I squinted, I recognized the girl from the beach yesterday, smiling down at me, her long dark hair framing my field of vision.

“Hi,” she said without a trace of self-consciousness. “Didn’t I see you playing at Bobby T’s last night?”

I guess I should explain
something else: Even though I’ve mentioned that I’d hoped to run into the dark-haired beauty at the beach, I didn’t have a plan after that. I’m not nervous when it comes to meeting women, though I am out of practice. Back home, aside from when I play the occasional gig for friends, I seldom go out. My excuse is usually that I’m too tired, but really, if you’ve lived in the same small town your entire life, doing pretty much anything on a Friday or Saturday night feels a bit like the movie
Groundhog Day.
You go to exactly the same places and see exactly the same people and do exactly the same things, and how often can someone experience the endless déjà vu without finally asking themselves,
Why am I even here?

The point is, I was a little rusty at making conversation with beautiful strangers and found myself gaping up at the girl wordlessly.

“Hello? Anyone home?” she asked into the silence. “Or have you already killed off the contents of that cooler, which means I should probably walk away right now?”

There was no mistaking the playfulness in her tone, but I barely registered her teasing as I took in the sight of her wearing a white half shirt along with faded jeans shorts that exposed part of a tantalizing purple bikini. She looked like she might be part Asian, and her thick, wavy hair was windblown in a messy-casual kind of way, as if she’d spent the day outdoors, just like me. I lifted my bottle of beer slightly.

“This is only my second of the day,” I said, finding my voice, “but whether you walk away is up to you. And, yes, you may have heard me at Bobby T’s last night, depending on what time you were there.”

“You were also the guy with the tattoos on the beach yesterday, right? Who eavesdropped on me and my friends?”

“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” I protested. “The four of you were loud.”

“You were also staring at me.”

“I was watching the dolphins.”

“Did you or did you not peek over your shoulder when you were walking away?”

“I was stretching my neck.”

She laughed. “What are you doing out here behind the hotel? Trying to accidentally eavesdrop on me and my friends again?”

“I came out to enjoy the sunset.”

“You’ve been here for hours and sunset is still a long way off.”

“How do you know how long I’ve been here?”

“Because I saw you when you first walked by. We were by the pool.”

“You saw me?”

“You were kind of hard to miss, lugging all your gear from somewhere up the beach. Seems like you could have plopped down anywhere. If you just wanted to enjoy the sunset, I mean.” Her brown eyes flashed with mischief.

“Would you like a beer?” I countered. “Since you obviously came out here to speak with me?”

“Oh, no thanks.”

I hesitated. “You are old enough to drink, though, right? I don’t want to be the creepy twenty-five-year-old who offers alcohol to minors.”

“Yup. Just turned twenty-one, actually. I’ve graduated college and everything.”

“Where are your friends?”

“They’re still at the pool.” She shrugged. “They were having margaritas when I left.”

“Sounds like a pleasant afternoon.”

She motioned toward my chair. “Can I borrow your towel?”

“My towel?”

“Please.”

I could have asked why, but instead, I simply stood, pulled it from the beach chair, and handed it over.

“Thank you.” She whipped it straight, then spread it on the sand beside my chair before taking a seat. I lowered myself into my chair, watching as she leaned back on her elbows, her long, sun-browned legs stretched out in front of her. For a few seconds, neither of us said anything. “I’m Morgan Lee, by the way,” she finally offered.

“Colby Mills,” I countered.

“I know,” she said. “I saw your show.”

Oh, right.
“Where’s home for you?”

“Chicago,” she answered. “More specifically, Lincoln Park.”

“That means nothing to me. I’ve never been to Chicago.”

“Lincoln Park is a neighborhood right next to the lake.”

“What lake?”

“Lake Michigan?” she said, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. “One of the Great Lakes?”

“Is it really great? Or is it just a good or average lake?”

She laughed at my lame joke, a deep and full-throated rumble that was startling coming from such a petite frame. “It’s gorgeous and…huge. It’s kind of like here, in fact.”

“Are there beaches?”

“Actually, yes. They don’t have the perfect white sand or palm trees, but they can get crowded in the summer. There can even be pretty big waves sometimes.”

“Is that where you went to college, too?”

“No. I went to Indiana University.”

“And let me guess. This trip is a graduation gift from your parents before you have to head off into the real world?”

“Impressive,” she said as she raised an eyebrow. “You must have figured that out sometime between yesterday and just now, which means you’ve been thinking about me.” Though I didn’t respond, I didn’t have to.
Busted,
I thought. “But, yes, you’re right,” she went on. “I think they felt bad because I had to deal with all that Covid stuff, which made school pretty crappy for a while. And obviously they’re thrilled I graduated, so they booked a trip for me and my friends.”

“I’m surprised the four of you didn’t want to go to Miami. St. Pete Beach is a bit off the beaten path.”

“I love this place,” she said with a shrug. “My family used to come here every year when I was growing up, and we always stayed at the Don.” She stared at me with open curiosity. “But how about you? How long have you lived here?”

“I don’t live here. I’m visiting from North Carolina. I just came down to play at Bobby T’s for a few weeks.”

“Is that what you do? Travel and perform?”

“No,” I said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever done something like this.”

“Then how did you end up playing here?”

“I played at a party back home, and in a weird coincidence, the booker for Bobby T’s happened to be visiting a friend in town and heard me play. Anyway, afterward he asked whether I’d be willing to come down to do a few shows. I’d have to pay my own travel and lodging, but it was a chance to visit Florida and the schedule isn’t too demanding.” I shrugged. “I think he was surprised when I said yes.”

“Why?”

“After expenses I probably won’t break even, but it’s a nice excuse to get away.”

“The crowd seemed to like you.”

“I think they’d be happy with anyone,” I demurred.

“And I think you’re selling yourself short. A lot of women in the crowd were staring at you with googly eyes.”

“Googly?”

“You know what I mean. When one of them went up to talk to you after your set, I thought she was going to try to grope you right there.”

“I doubt it,” I said. In all candor, I could barely remember talking to anyone after the show.

“So where did you learn to sing?” she asked. “Did you take lessons or were you in a band or…?”

“I was in a band when I was in high school.” I gave her a brief rundown of my unglamorous stint with the post-punk crew.

“Did the lead singer ever make it?” she asked, laughing. “In Los Angeles?”

“If he did, I’m not aware of it.”

“Did you play at venues like Bobby T’s?”

“Never. Think…dingy bars and clubs where the police were called after fights broke out.”

“Did you have groupies? Like you do now?”

She was teasing again, but I had to admit I liked it. “There
were a few girls who might have been considered regulars at our shows, but they weren’t interested in me.”

“Poor thing.”

“They weren’t my type.” I frowned. “Come to think of it, I’m not sure they were anyone’s type.”

She smiled, flashing dimples I hadn’t noticed before. “So…if you’re not in a band and you don’t perform much, what is it that you actually do?”

Naturally I said, “My family owns a farm.”

She swept her eyes over me. “You don’t look like a farmer.”

“That’s because I’m not wearing my overalls and straw hat.”

She gave that rumbling belly laugh again, and I realized how much I liked the sound of it. “What do you grow on your farm?” As I described our seasonal crops and who we sold them to, she pulled up her legs and wrapped her arms around them, flashing her immaculate red toenail polish. “I only buy cage-free organic eggs,” she remarked, nodding. “I feel bad for chickens who spend their whole life inside a tiny cage. But tobacco causes cancer.”

“Cigarettes cause cancer. All I do is grow a green leafy plant, and then I prime and cure the leaves before selling them.”

“Are those farming terms?”

“Priming means picking the leaves, and curing means allowing them to dry.”

“Then why didn’t you just say that instead?”

“Because I like to sound
professional.

She fluttered her long, dark lashes and shot me an indulgent smile. “Okay, Professor…what’s an heirloom tomato? I mean, I know they come in funky shapes and colors, but how are they different from regular tomatoes?”

“Most of the tomatoes you find in stores are hybrids, which means their DNA has been manipulated, usually so they won’t spoil while being transported. The downside is that hybrids taste
kind of bland. Heirloom tomatoes aren’t hybrids, so each variety has its own unique flavor.”

There was a lot more to it—whether or not open pollination was used, whether seeds were purchased from vendors or harvested individually, the soil’s effect on flavor, climate—but only people who had to grow them cared about those sorts of details.

“That’s very cool,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a farmer before.”

“There’s a rumor we can almost pass for human.”

“Ha ha.”

I smiled, feeling a buzz that had nothing to do with the beer. “What about you? How long are you staying?”

“We leave a week from tomorrow. We just got in yesterday. Not long before you saw us on the beach, in fact.”

“You didn’t think about renting a house?”

“I doubt the idea even occurred to my parents. Besides, I have a lot of nostalgic feelings for the Don.” She made a wry face. “Plus, none of us really likes to cook.”

“I guess you were on the meal plan at school.”

“Yeah, but this is also supposed to be a
vacation.

I smiled. “I don’t think I saw you or your friends at the show last night.”

“We didn’t get there until the last fifteen minutes or so. It was pretty crowded, so we stood out on the beach.”

“Friday nights,” I offered. “People wanting to start their weekend, I guess.” Because my beer was now warm, I dumped the contents into the sand. “Would you like a bottle of water?”

“I’d love one. Thanks.”

Twisting in my seat, I checked the cooler. The ice had melted, but the bottles were still cool. I handed one to her and took one for myself.

She sat up straight, waving her bottle at the surf. “Hey, I think
the dolphins are back!” she cried, shielding her eyes as she scanned the water. “They must have a routine.”

“I guess,” I said. “Or maybe it’s a different pod. The ocean’s pretty big, you know.”

“Technically, I believe this is a gulf, not an ocean.”

“What’s the difference?”

“I honestly have no idea,” she admitted, and it was my turn to laugh. Settling into a comfortable silence, we watched the dolphins riding the breakers. I still wasn’t sure why she’d approached me in the first place, as she was pretty enough to have her pick of guys. Between sips of water, I stole glances at her profile with its slightly upturned nose and full lips, as delicate as a line drawing.

By then, the sky had begun to pale slightly. The crowds were finally beginning to pack up, shaking towels and collecting plastic toys, folding chairs, and stuffing items into beach bags. Yesterday, I’d seen Morgan and her friends for the first time; I marveled at the fact that I was sitting beside her the very next day. Things like this didn’t happen to me, but perhaps Morgan was used to winning over strangers in an instant. She certainly didn’t lack confidence.

The dolphins moved slowly down the beach, and from the corner of my eye, I saw a melancholy smile cross Morgan’s lips. She sighed.

“I should probably check in with my friends before they start to get worried.”

I nodded. “It’s probably time for me to head back, too.”

“What about all that talk about watching the sunset?”

“I’ll catch it later.”

She smiled, rising from her spot and brushing the sand from her legs. I picked up the towel and shook it out before draping it over my shoulder.

“Are you going to be playing tonight?” she asked, meeting my eyes.

“No, but I’ll be there tomorrow at five.”

“Enjoy your night off, then.” Her gaze flickered toward the pool area before seeking out my own again. For the first time, I had the strange sense she was nervous. “It was nice meeting you, Colby.”

“You, too.”

She’d taken a step away when she suddenly turned back. “Do you have plans tonight?” She hesitated. “I mean, later in the evening.”

“Not really.”

She hugged her arms to her chest. “We’re planning to go to MacDinton’s. Do you know it? In St. Petersburg? I think it’s an Irish pub.”

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
6.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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