Authors: Nicholas Sparks
Beverly sat up in bed,
blinking in the darkness, knowing it had been less a dream than a memory, except that this time she’d been falling, too, hand in hand with the pirate. As always when the dream resurfaced, she woke to the hammering of her heart, with shaky breaths and her sheet damp with sweat.
I’m not falling,
I’m not falling,
but even so, the physical sensation was slow to pass. Her heart continued to race, her breaths rapid, and even as the dream began to fade, she knew she wasn’t herself. The world felt off-kilter and foreign. She forced herself to concentrate on the details of the room as they emerged in vague and darkened shadows. She saw a window with thin shades drawn, the soft white sky of dawn seeping through. She saw her clothing piled on the floor. There was a lamp and a glass half filled with water on the bedside table next to her. Across the room stood a chest of drawers with a full-length mirror hanging beside it. Little by little, she began to make sense of her surroundings.
It was morning. She was in the bedroom of the house she’d
just rented, and her six-year-old son, Tommie, was asleep in the room across the hallway. She had only recently arrived in town
Beverly thought, reminding herself.
My new life. I’m beginning my new life,
and only then was she able to push the covers back. She got out of bed, feeling a thin silky rug beneath her feet, a pleasant surprise. The bedroom door was closed, but she knew the short hallway beyond it would lead to the stairs and that, on the main floor, there was a living room and a small kitchen furnished with an old Formica table surrounded by four scuffed wooden chairs.
Beverly slipped into the jeans and T-shirt that had been heaped on the floor and wondered how long she’d been sleeping. She couldn’t remember what time she finally went to bed, other than that it had been really, really late. But what had she done? The memories of the night before were nothing but dream smoke, blurring at the edges and black in the middle. She couldn’t remember what she’d had for dinner or even if she’d eaten at all, but she supposed it didn’t much matter. Starting over always carried with it stress, and stress made the mind do funny things.
She crept from her bedroom, peeked in on Tommie, and saw him jumbled under the covers. She quietly made her way down the stairs to the kitchen. As she poured herself a glass of water from the faucet, she remembered a recent night when she’d snuck from her bedroom, moving quietly and without turning on a single light. She was already dressed when she roused Tommie. His small backpack was loaded and hidden beneath his bed. She helped him get dressed and they crept down the stairs. Like Tommie, she carried only a backpack, for ease and speed. She knew that neighbors might remember a woman and child hauling rolling suitcases along the sidewalk in the middle of the night; she knew that her husband, Gary, would seek out those neighbors and they would tell him what he needed to know to
find her. In Tommie’s backpack were his favorite Iron Man action figure and
Go, Dog. Go!,
a book she still read to him every night. She’d also packed two T-shirts, a second pair of pants, socks, underwear, toothbrush and toothpaste, and hair wax for his cowlick. In her backpack were the same sorts of items and other things, along with a smattering of makeup, a brush, sunglasses, an Ace bandage, and a wig. Near the front window, she didn’t bother looking for the black SUV with tinted windows that had been parked along her street for the past three days. She already knew it would be there, even if parked in a different spot. Instead, after she helped Tommie with his jacket, they slipped out the back door. She made sure not to let the screen door bang or squeak, inching it closed as slowly as possible. They crossed the damp grass to the wooden fence that bordered their lawn, and Beverly helped Tommie climb over into the neighbor’s backyard. Through all of that, Tommie had said nothing. He wobbled when he walked as though still partially asleep. They exited through the neighbor’s gate and stayed near the hedges until reaching the street that ran parallel to her own. There, she hid behind a car parked on the street and peered in both directions. She saw no black SUV with tinted windows.
Where are we going?
Tommie finally asked her.
On an adventure,
Is Daddy coming with us?
she’d responded, which was true, even if it didn’t really answer his question.
It was the middle of the night and quiet, but the moon was half full and the streets were illuminated by lampposts at the intersections. She needed darkness and shadows to remain invisible, so she cut across lawns and driveways, sticking close to the houses. In the rare moments when she heard a car coming, she led Tommie to whatever nearby secluded spot she could find—
behind bushes or trellises and even an old RV. Occasionally, a dog would bark, but the sound always came from a distance. They walked and walked, but Tommie didn’t whine, didn’t so much as whimper. Residential streets gradually gave way to commercial ones, then, an hour and a half later, to an industrial area, with warehouses and a salvage yard and parking lots surrounded by chain-link fencing. Though there was no place to hide, the streets were empty. When they eventually reached the bus station, the entrance smelled of cigarette smoke and fried food and urine. They went inside. In the restroom, Beverly pinned her hair up with bobby pins and donned the wig that turned her from a long-haired blonde to a brunette with a pixie cut. She wrapped a long Ace bandage around her chest, making her breasts smaller, pulling it tight to the point that it was hard to breathe. She donned a baseball hat, and though it was still dark, she put on her sunglasses. Tommie didn’t recognize her when she emerged. She had told him to sit on one of the benches and explained that it was important not to wander off, and it was only after she removed her glasses while directly in front of him that his eyes widened in recognition. She walked him to an even more isolated bench in the corner of the terminal, one that was out of sight from the ticket window, and told him to sit quietly.
There were only a few people milling about in the station when she went to the ticket window and took her place in line behind an elderly woman in a heavy brown cardigan sweater. When it was her turn, she stood before a man with bags under his eyes and a long side patch of stringy gray hair that he swept over his bald spot. She asked for two tickets to Chicago, and as she handed over the money, she mentioned casually that she and her sister were going to visit their mother. She didn’t want the man behind the Plexiglas to know she was traveling with her son, but apparently he didn’t care one way or the other—he barely
seemed to notice her as he handed her the tickets. Beverly returned to a bench kitty-corner from Tommie, where she could keep an eye on him but it wouldn’t be obvious that they were together. Every minute or so she would glance at him, then toward the entrance, searching beyond the glass for the black SUV with tinted windows, but thankfully it never appeared. She also studied other faces in the terminal, trying to memorize them, seeing if anyone was paying attention to a little boy sitting all alone, just in case. But no one seemed to care.
Dawn arrived, a bright late-spring glare. In time, the engine of the appropriate bus began to idle beneath one of the aluminum canopies out back. With her stomach in knots, she sent Tommie ahead so he could pretend to be boarding with a man in a bomber jacket, a father and son traveling together. Through the windows, she watched Tommie follow the man toward seats near the rear of the bus. Others boarded, then she finally stepped aboard, walking past the thin, dark-haired bus driver. She took a seat in the second-to-last row; on the opposite side, in the next row up, was an older woman crocheting, moving the needle like a conductor standing in front of an orchestra. Tommie remained in his seat ahead of her until the bus started moving, just as she’d instructed, and when they reached the highway, he joined her. There, he leaned his head against her shoulder while she continued to watch the people on the bus, forcing herself to remember them and trying to figure out whether any of them had noticed anything amiss.
She reminded herself of how careful she’d been. Gary was out of town, doing whatever secret thing it was he did for the government. They’d also left on a Saturday, and on each of the four previous weekends she’d made sure not to leave the house or even let Tommie play in the yard, establishing a pattern that would hopefully buy time. Using money she’d secretly saved over a
period of six months, she set up automatic timers on the lights, which would come on and then go out in the evenings. With any luck, the driver in the black SUV wouldn’t know they were gone until the school bus showed up on Monday morning.
The bus rumbled along, and as the hours slowly passed, Beverly thought that every minute meant another mile farther from the home she needed to escape. Tommie slept beside her as they rode through Texas and Arkansas and then finally into Missouri. They rolled past farmland and stopped in cities and towns, most with names she didn’t recognize. People got off and others got on, and the brakes would squeak and the bus would eventually lurch forward again, toward the next destination. Stopping and starting, all day long and then into the night, the engine rumbling beneath her seat. By the time the first driver was replaced by a new one, she recognized no one from the original bus station, but even then she tried to remember every face she saw. The woman who was crocheting had been replaced by a young man with short hair, carrying an olive-colored duffel bag. Army, maybe, or Marines, and when he pulled a phone from his pocket, Beverly’s heart slammed in her chest. She pulled her baseball cap lower and stared out the window, wondering if the young man worked with Gary, wondering if he could have possibly found her already. She wondered again about the hidden powers of the Department of Homeland Security. She had lied to Gary and Tommie and neighbors and friends, and though she hadn’t been raised to lie, she’d had no other choice. Across the aisle, the young man with the short hair put his phone back into his pocket and closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window. He hadn’t so much as peeked in her direction, and little by little, her heart began to slow again. Though exhausted, she found it impossible to sleep.
In Missouri, the bus stopped again. Another station, another
nameless place. Beverly sent Tommie ahead of her, off the bus, then eventually followed him. She led him to the ladies’ room in the terminal, ignoring the irritated expression of a heavyset woman in a floral-print blouse. She used water from the faucet and wax to dampen Tommie’s cowlick, and though she had little money to spare, Tommie was six and growing fast and she knew he needed to eat. There were two apples and two granola bars in her own backpack, but that wasn’t enough. In the convenience store across the street, she bought milk and two hot dogs but nothing for her own growling stomach. She decided she could have one of the apples in an hour, even though she knew she could eat both of them and the granola bars and would likely still be hungry. At the register, because there was a camera, she kept her head tilted down, the brim of the hat shielding her face.
They got on the bus again. Tommie remained quiet, flipping through the pages of his book. She knew he could read it by now; she had read it so often he had probably memorized it, as well. Instinctively, she knew that Tommie was more intelligent than most children his age; he picked things up quickly and always seemed to understand situations and ideas far beyond his years. When she looked at him, she sometimes saw Gary’s eyes, but his smile was his own, and his nose resembled hers. She sometimes saw him as a baby and a toddler and on his first day of kindergarten, the images merging in her head, making Tommie perpetually familiar and yet always new and different. Beyond the window, she saw farmland and cows and silos and highway signs advertising fast-food restaurants one or two or three exits ahead. Beverly ate one of the apples, chewing slowly, trying to savor it, to make the flavor last. She’d sewn most of the money she had saved into a hidden pocket in her jacket.
Later, they left that bus for good. They were somewhere in Illinois, but still a long way from Chicago. She sent Tommie ahead
of her, watching as he took a seat on the bench in the terminal. After a couple of minutes, she went to the ladies’ room, where she hid in a stall. She had told Tommie to wait, so he did. Ten minutes, then fifteen, and then twenty minutes, until she was confident that anyone else who’d been on the bus had already departed the station. Once she was sure it was quiet, she stood in front of the cracked and dingy mirror in the restroom. She quickly removed her wig but kept her hair pinned up and put the baseball hat back on. Now she was a short-haired blonde. The sunglasses went into her backpack, and she applied heavy mascara and black eyeliner. When she emerged, the bus station was devoid of people except Tommie. She told him to stand near the restroom when she went to the ticket window again. She bought tickets for the next bus that was leaving, not caring where it went, only that it would take her in some random direction and make her journey that much harder to follow. Again, she mentioned she was traveling with her sister, and again she sat apart from Tommie; again, they boarded the bus at separate times.