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Authors: Nicholas Sparks

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BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
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“Did you go to a lot of frat parties?”

“A few,” she continued, “but I was pretty busy most of the time. I did go to a formal, which was fun, even though I didn’t really like the guy all that much. But, okay, about me: In a lot of ways, it was a typical childhood, I guess. School and some after-school activities, like most people…” When she trailed off, I thought I detected a hint of reticence.

“And your family?”

“My dad’s a surgeon. He emigrated from the Philippines in the 1970s to study at Northwestern. He ended up going to medical school at the University of Chicago, where he met my mom. She’s a radiologist, German-Irish stock from Minnesota. Her family had a cabin on a lake up there, where we spent a part of every summer. And I have a sister, Heidi, who’s three years younger and looks nothing like me, and even though we couldn’t be more different, I think she’s amazing.”

I smiled. “Your family sounds anything but typical.”

“I don’t know,” she replied, then shrugged. “A lot of my friends’ parents were doctors or lawyers, so it wasn’t that big of a deal, and their families came from all over the world, too. I don’t think my family stood out at all.”

Where I’m from, they definitely would.
“And you’re the same kind of overachieving academic as your parents, I take it?”

“Why would you say that?”

“Because you just turned twenty-one and you’ve already graduated from college?”

She laughed again. “That had less to do with grades and SAT scores than my desire to get away from my parents. Trust me—my sister is a lot smarter than I am.”

“Why did you want to get away from your parents?” I asked. “It sounds like you had a pretty comfortable life.”

“I did, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful, because I’m not,” she hedged. “But it’s complicated. My parents can be…overprotective.”

When she paused, I glanced over at her. In the silence, she seemed to be debating how much to tell me, before finally going on.

“When I was seven, I was diagnosed with a pretty severe case of scoliosis. The doctors weren’t sure how my condition would progress as I grew, so in addition to having to wear a back brace for sixteen hours a day, I ended up having a bunch of surgeries and procedures to fix it. Obviously, since my parents are doctors, they made sure I saw the best specialists, but as you can imagine, they worried and hovered and wouldn’t allow me to do the things other kids did. And even though I eventually got better, it’s like they still see me as the damaged little girl I once was.”

“That sounds rough.”

“Don’t get me wrong. I know I’m not being completely fair to them. I know they care about me; it’s just that…I’m not like my parents. Or my sister, for that matter. Sometimes it feels like I was born into the wrong family.”

“I think a lot of people feel that way.”

“That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.”

I smiled. “Does that mean you’re not going to become a doctor?”

“Among other things,” she admitted. “Like…I love dancing, for instance. I started in ballet because the doctors recommended
it, but I got hooked. I also learned tap, jazz, and hip-hop, but the more I got into it, the less my parents approved, even though it was good for me. Like I wasn’t quite measuring up to their expectations, you know? Anyway, to answer your question, by the time I started high school, I was already itching to get out and become an adult, so I started taking classes at community college and did a summer session at IU. I took accelerated classes so I was able to graduate early. And, yes, I was pretty much one of the youngest freshmen on campus. I’d only been driving a little more than a year.”

“And your overprotective parents were okay with you leaving home that young?”

“I threatened that I wouldn’t go to college at all. They knew I was serious.”

“You drive a hard bargain.”

“I can be a bit headstrong,” she offered with a wink. “But what about you?”

“What about me?”

“Did you go to college?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I never liked school all that much to begin with, so it wasn’t really in the cards.”

“Do you regret not going?”

“I probably would have failed out.”

“Not if you tried.”

“I likely wouldn’t have tried.”

She smiled. “I know that school’s not for everyone. And you still figured out what you want to do early on, which is more than a lot of people can say.”

I considered what she’d said. “I have a knack for farming,” I
conceded, “and now that most of the transition work is behind us, my days aren’t as long as they once were. But it’s not what I grew up imagining that I’d be doing.”

I could still feel her eyes on me, her delicate features intermittently illuminated by passing headlights.

“You love music,” she announced. “That’s what you really wanted to do, right?”

“Of course.”

“You’re young, Colby,” she pointed out. “You still have plenty of time.”

I shook my head. “It’s not going to happen.”

“Because of your family?” Though I didn’t answer, she must have seen my expression, because I heard her expel a breath. “Okay, I accept that. Now, changing gears, since I told you about my boring childhood, what was your life like growing up in North Carolina?”

I gave her the highlights, trying to inject some humor into my dumb middle and high school exploits and responding in detail to her questions about the farm, about which she seemed endlessly fascinated. When I finished, I asked her what she liked most about college.

“The people,” she said, her answer almost automatic. “That’s where I met Stacy, Maria, and Holly. Others, too.”

“What did you end up studying?”

“Can’t you guess?” she asked. “What’s the last thing I said to you on the beach?”

I love your voice.
But still unsure what that had to do with her choice of a major, I gave her a quizzical look.

“I majored in vocal performance.”

When we reached the Don CeSar,
she directed me to the hotel parking lot. Morgan flashed her room key card to the lot’s security guard, and after parking I fished my guitar from behind the driver’s seat and we started toward the hotel. Entering through the lower-level doors, we walked the wide carpeted hallways that zigged and zagged past high-end boutiques and an ice-cream-and-candy shop. I felt underdressed, but Morgan didn’t seem to notice.

We exited near the perfectly landscaped pool area. Off to the right was a restaurant with additional outdoor seating near the beach; ahead and to the left were two pools surrounded by dozens of lounge chairs and the ever-popular bar. The restaurant, likely closed by then, still had two or three couples relaxing at their tables, enjoying the balmy breezes.

“This is the fanciest hotel I’ve ever seen,” I said, trying not to gape at my surroundings.

“It’s been around a long time. In the thirties it drew guests from up and down the East Coast, and during World War II it
was leased by the military to treat servicemen struggling with PTSD. Of course, they didn’t call it PTSD back then. I guess it went downhill for a while after that, and then new owners bought it and spruced it up, returning it to its former glory.”

“You know a lot about it.”

She elbowed me, smirking. “There’s a history exhibit hanging in the hallway we just walked through.”

Pleasantly surprised by the physical contact, I merely smiled. Threading between the two pools, we walked past the bar onto a wooden deck near the low-slung sand dunes. As we reached the sand, she stopped to pull out her phone.

“I’m going to let my friends know where I am,” she explained, and a few seconds later, her phone dinged. “They’re getting ready to leave, so they’ll be here in a little while.”

She suddenly reached out, holding on to my shoulder. “Stay still so I can take off my boots,” she instructed, standing on one foot. “I don’t want them to get ruined. But don’t let me forget them, okay?”

“I’m pretty sure you’d remember the moment you realized you were barefoot.”

“Probably,” she said with a mischievous grin. “But this way I’ll also find out whether you’re reliable. You ready?”

“After you.”

We stepped onto the sand, walking side by side but not quite close enough to touch. Stars spanned the nighttime sky and the moon hovered high and bright. The sea struck me as both peaceful and ominous at exactly the same time. I noticed a couple walking near the water’s edge, their features hidden in shadow, and heard voices drifting from tables near the bar. Beside me, Morgan almost seemed to be gliding, her long hair fluttering behind her in the salt-scented breeze.

Just beyond the glow of hotel lights, there were a couple of lounge chairs that either hadn’t been put away or someone had recently dragged out to the beach. Morgan gestured at them.

“They must have been expecting us.”

We sat across from each other, and Morgan turned toward the water, poised and serene in the moonlight.

“It looks so different at night,” she remarked. “In the day it’s inviting, but at night, all I can think is that there are giant sharks just lying in wait for me.”

“No midnight swim, then?”

“Not a chance,” she said, before turning toward me. I saw the flash of her smile.

“Can I ask a question?” I ventured, leaning forward. “What did you mean when you said you majored in vocal performance?”

“That’s what the major is called.”

“You mean, like…singing?”

“You have to be accepted into the program, but yes.”

“How do you get accepted?”

“Well, in addition to the taped and/or live audition, there’s a keyboard requirement, so you have to know how to play the piano. And then the usual—transcripts, history of musical studies or training, performances, awards…all that.”

“Are there actual classes, or do you just get to sing?”

“Of course there are classes—general ed, music theory, ear training, music history, just to start—but as you can probably imagine, what we do outside of class is super important, too. There are choir ensembles, rehearsals, piano practice, recitals, and concerts. The school has one of the best opera programs in the country.”

“You want to be an opera singer?”

“No, but when you think about people like Mariah Carey or
Beyoncé or Adele, their vocal control—their precision, range, and power—really sets them apart. Opera training can help with all those things. That’s why I wanted to study it.”

“But I thought you loved to dance.”

“You can love both, can’t you?” she asked. “But anyway, singing was my first love, no doubt. I grew up singing all the time—in the bathroom, in my bedroom, in my backyard, wherever, like a lot of girls do. When I had to start wearing the back brace—before I started dancing—it wasn’t easy for me, and not just because of my parents or the surgeries. I wasn’t allowed to play sports or run around with friends from the neighborhood, and my mom had to carry my backpack to school, and I needed a special chair in the classroom…and…kids can be pretty mean sometimes. So I started singing even more, because it made me feel…normal and free, if that makes any sense.”

When she grew quiet, I couldn’t help but imagine a young girl strapped into a back brace, wanting to be like everyone else, and how hard that must have been. She seemed to sense what I was thinking, because she looked at me with an almost forlorn expression.

“I’m sorry. I don’t usually share this kind of stuff with people I’m still getting to know.”

“I’m honored.”

“Still, I don’t want you to think I’m hoping for some kind of pity party, because I’m not. Everyone has challenges, and a lot of people have them worse than I ever did.”

I suspected she was speaking about the fact that I’d lost my mom, and I nodded. “So…singing?”

“Oh yeah,” she offered. “Long story short, my parents eventually put me in singing and piano lessons so that I had after-school activities like my friends did. I think they believed it
would be a passing phase, but just like dancing, the more I practiced, the more important it became to me. I sang through high school, and I’ve had private vocal lessons for years. I tell myself that my experience at IU was just icing on the cake. My parents may not be thrilled with my choice of major, but then again, I didn’t give them a vote in that, either.”

“Why wouldn’t they be thrilled?”

“They’re doctors,” she said, as though that was all the explanation needed. When I didn’t respond, she finally went on. “My parents would prefer that I have more-traditional dreams.”

“So you’re serious about singing.”

“It’s what I’m meant to do,” she said, her eyes fixed on mine.

“What’s next, then? Since you’ve graduated, I mean?”

“I’m moving to Nashville in a couple of weeks. That’s another reason I wanted to graduate early. I’m only twenty-one, which still gives me time to break into the music world.”

“How are you going to pay your bills? Did you line up a job there?”

“I got some money from my grandparents for graduation. And, believe it or not, my parents have agreed to help with rent, too, so I should be okay for a while.”

“I’m kind of surprised that your parents would agree to that. Based on what you told me about them, I mean.”

“I am, too. But my dad was terrified about me living in a place that might be dangerous, so he talked my mom into it. I don’t know how long their help will last, but I’m definitely grateful for it. I know how hard it is to break into the music world, and I feel like the only way I’m going to have a chance is to give it a hundred percent effort. So that’s what I intend to do, and I’ll keep trying until it works. It’s my dream.”

I heard the determination in her tone and couldn’t help but be
impressed, even as I admitted she had the kind of support and opportunities of which only a handful of people could boast. “Are your friends in music, too? Holly, Stacy, and Maria?”

“No, but we have a dance group together. That’s how we met. We all had accounts on TikTok where we posted videos of ourselves dancing, so we started dancing as a group, too.”

“Does anyone watch?”

She tilted her head. “They’re incredible dancers, better than I am. Maria, for instance, is a dance major, and she just scored an audition with Mark Morris’s dance company. You’ve also seen what they all look like. What do you think?”

“Can I see some of the videos?”

“I still don’t know you well enough for that.”

“But you let strangers see them.”

“It’s different if I know the person. Haven’t you ever felt that way? When you sing? That if there’s someone you know in the audience—and want to know better—you get nervous. It’s kind of like that.”

“You want to get to know me better?” I persisted, teasing.

“You’re missing the point.”

I held up my hands. “I get it. Do you have a lot of followers?”

“That’s a relative question,” she said. “What’s a lot? Some people have a couple hundred million followers, and there are lots of others between fifty and a hundred million. We’ve networked a lot, but we’re not in that league.”

“How many do you have?”

“Individually or as a group?”

“Both.”

“Almost two million for me, and over eight million for our group.”

I blinked, thinking about the 478 followers I had on all three
of my social-media platforms combined. “You have over eight million followers on TikTok?”

“It’s crazy, right?”

“It’s hard to believe,” I said, not bothering to hide my disbelief. “How did you even get something like that off the ground?”

“A lot of work and even more luck. Stacy is a genius when it comes to building followers, and Holly is a video-editing goddess. We started by posting to one another’s accounts. Then we performed routines at campus events, and a lot of students followed us. After that, we found dance groups at other colleges that were doing the same thing that we were, and we linked up with those accounts, as well. And then, last November at a basketball game…” She hesitated. “You know basketball is really popular in Indiana, right? Anyway, the game was being broadcast nationally, and Stacy happened to know one of the camera guys. We were wearing T-shirts that had our TikTok account on the front, and the network went to one of those crowd shots during a time-out. The cameraman zoomed in on us as we performed one of our routines on the sidelines. And after that the camera kept returning to us during breaks, to the point that even the network announcers mentioned our TikTok name! Then a clip ended up on ESPN, a few influencers took note, and almost immediately our account began blowing up. Thousands of people, tens of thousands, hundreds…and it just kept snowballing from there.”

“Do you make money with that?” I asked, fascinated.

“We do, but only recently. Figuring out how to monetize it requires a lot more work, and there are decisions about brands and whether the company is honest or whether it’s something we’d be willing to promote. Stacy and Holly do most of that, too. I didn’t really have time for that, but the other three have started
to make some money with it—and because they do all the work, it’s only fair. They could use it, too. Stacy is going to medical school this fall, and Holly has student loans. Ironically, she got a job with ESPN, if you can believe that. She wants to be a broadcaster.”

“And Maria?”

“Well, that depends on her audition with Mark Morris, but her mom is a choreographer who’s done some work on Broadway, so Maria choreographs all of our dances. Her mom actually sent my recordings to some managers she knows in Nashville, so we’ll see how that goes.”

In my limited experience, meetings seldom led anywhere—even the band I was in had meetings with potential managers, albeit minor-league ones—but I wasn’t about to tell her that.

“Sounds exciting,” I said. “I’m sure your presence on TikTok and Instagram will help get their attention.”

“I guess,” she offered. When I raised an eyebrow, she continued. “Honestly, I have mixed feelings about the whole social-media game and the constant effort to build followers.”

“But having an existing fan base can only help launch your career, right?”

“Maybe,” she said. “Our fans are almost all girls following us because of our looks and our dance moves. And I’ll admit that we play up our sexiness in the way we move and dress. It’s what sells.”

When she paused, I asked the obvious. “But?”

She sighed. “I want to be known for my singing, not because I’m a hot girl who can dance, you know? And then there’s the fact that social media isn’t necessarily a good thing for teenage girls. There’s so much editing that what they’re seeing isn’t exactly real, but it’s hard for people to separate the fantasy. It’s not as though we just walk out and dance without practicing or that
we don’t spend a lot of time perfecting our hair and makeup and outfits before we film. So what’s the point in being regarded as an influencer—or, God forbid, a role model—if it’s all kind of fake?”

I said nothing, impressed she’d considered those things. I’ll be honest: I hadn’t. But then again, hardly anyone followed me, so what did it matter?

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
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