Authors: Nicholas Sparks
And then, after another day and a half on the bus, she and Tommie stepped off for good. They left the station and walked toward the highway. Near the on-ramp, she put out her thumb and caught a ride with a woman driving a station wagon, who asked them where they were going. Beverly answered that she could drop them anywhere, and the woman gazed over at Beverly and Tommie and saw something in Beverly’s face and didn’t ask any more questions. In time, the station wagon came to a stop in a small town, and Tommie and Beverly got out. From there, they hitched another ride—this time from a middle-aged man who smelled of Old Spice and sold carpets for a living—and when Beverly made up a story about her car breaking down, Tommie knew enough to stay silent. They eventually arrived at another small town. Beverly and Tommie grabbed their
backpacks, and Beverly brought Tommie to get something to eat at a roadside diner. Beverly asked for a cup of hot water and added ketchup to it, making a thin soup, while Tommie had a cheeseburger and fries and a slice of blueberry pie and two glasses of milk.
On the next street over, she spotted an inexpensive motel, though she knew she didn’t have enough money to stay more than a couple of nights. Not if she intended to rent a place. But it would have to do for now, and after she got Tommie settled in the dated but functional room, she went back to the diner and asked the waitress if she could borrow her cellphone to make a quick call, along with a pen and a napkin. The woman—who reminded Beverly a little of her mom—seemed to sense the urgency of Beverly’s request. Instead of making a call, Beverly pretended to do so and then, with her back turned, she searched local real estate listings. There weren’t many, and she jotted down addresses and then cleared the history before returning the cellphone. After that, she asked strangers on the street for basic directions and found the dingy apartments first, but they were no good. Nor was the equally dingy duplex. Nor was the one house she’d been able to find. But there was one listing still to go.
In the morning, after bringing Tommie to the diner for breakfast and then back to the motel, she went out again. Aside from the two apples and granola bars, she hadn’t eaten for three days. She walked slowly, but even then she had to stop and rest every few minutes, and it took a long time to find the house. It was on the distant outskirts of town, in farm country, a grand two-story place surrounded by massive live oaks, their limbs stretching in every direction like gnarled, arthritic fingers. Out front, the patchy grass was slightly overgrown with dandelions and goosegrass and prostrate knotweed. A dirt pathway led toward a covered front porch sporting a pair of ancient rocking chairs. The
front door was candy-apple red, ridiculous against the dirty and flaking white paint, and the sides of the house were thick with azalea and daylilies, the decaying blooms like splashes of color in a forgotten forest. The house was fifty or a hundred years old and isolated enough to keep prying eyes away.
She cupped her hands to various windows so she could see inside. The colors on the first floor were dizzying—orange paint on the kitchen walls, a burgundy wall in the living room. Mismatched furniture; wide, scuffed pine plank flooring covered with thin rugs in the hallway and living room, linoleum in the kitchen. Sills painted so many times she wondered whether she would be able to open the windows. But she walked back to town and asked the waitress at the diner if she could borrow her phone again. She called the owner of the house and returned later in the afternoon, so she could go inside. She made sure to delete the call, just in case. For that visit, she donned the same disguise she’d used on the night they ran away.
As she’d walked through the house, she knew it would need work. There was a ring of lime in the sink, grease on the stovetop, a refrigerator filled with food that could have been there for weeks or months. Upstairs were two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a linen closet. On the plus side, there were no water stains in the ceilings, and the toilets and showers worked. On the back porch, there was a washer and dryer, both of them rusting but still functional, as well as a water heater that looked almost new. Next to and above the appliances were shelves stacked with odds and ends, along with cans and cans of latex paint, enough to paint the entire interior, all different colors, at least a dozen. On the floor in the corner was a dirty plastic bucket filled with rollers and paintbrushes, along with a pan, surrounded by rags that looked anything but new. It was nothing like the house she had shared with Gary, with its harsh modern exterior and his clean,
straight-lined furniture and organized cupboards, nothing ever out of place. Their home had been like something from the future, as cold and empty of feeling as outer space, while this home radiated a feeling of familiar comfort
Even better, the owner worked with a regular handyman for any repairs, so all she had to do was call if there were problems. Utilities were included, and the house came furnished, albeit with furniture that was anything but new. The couch was worn but comfortable; there was a newer-model television and an ancient DVD player in a cabinet, end tables, and lamps with shades that didn’t quite match. There were beds and chests of drawers in the bedrooms and towels in the bathrooms. In the small pantry off the kitchen, there was a broom and mop, various cleaners—most half used—and other assorted stuff. There were lightbulbs and two extension cords, a toilet-bowl brush and plunger, a flyswatter, a box containing nails and screws and a small hammer. There was a wrench, as well, and two types of screwdrivers. Next to the tools, there was half a box of AA batteries and two nine-volts. A dehumidifier. Rags and sandpaper and a medium-sized stepladder. There were sheets and pillowcases in the linen closet upstairs, though they would need to be washed. There were plates and glasses and utensils in the kitchen drawers and pots and pans and even some Tupperware in the kitchen. It was as though the people who’d lived here had vanished into the ether one day, stealing away in the middle of the night, carrying only what they could. Knowing they had to get out, knowing it was time to run. From the law, from something dangerous. Taking only what would fit in the trunk of their car and abandoning everything else because they simply had to get away.
Just like her and Tommie.
Beverly had run her finger along the counter, hearing a fly
buzz past her and noting dirty fingerprint smudges on the refrigerator and grease stains high on the kitchen walls. She could live here, she’d thought, and the idea had made her feel almost dizzy with possibility. She could turn it into a real home, and it would be hers and Tommie’s, just the two of them. Beyond the windows, she had noted the nearby barn, which she was told was being used for storage and was definitely off-limits. It mattered not at all, since Beverly had brought practically nothing with her, let alone anything she needed to store in a barn. Her eyes drifted to Tommie, who was sitting on a tree stump near the road. She had brought him with her this time but had asked him to wait outside. He was examining the back of his fingers, and she wondered what he was thinking. Sometimes she wished he would speak more, but he was a child who generally kept his thoughts to himself, as though his deepest desire was to move through the world quietly, attracting as little notice as possible. In time, perhaps, he would change, and as she’d stared at him, she knew she loved him more than she’d ever loved anyone.
Now it was morning, and they were in their new place, but other details remained blurry. She remembered that the owner didn’t have a lot of questions or ask for references, which had been both a blessing and a surprise; she’d paid cash for the deposit and the first month’s rent, but how long ago had that been? Four days? Five? However long it was, she’d been able to enroll Tommie in school and make sure that the bus would pick him up; she’d also been able to go grocery shopping, so he would have milk and cereal for breakfast and sandwiches for his school lunches. At a small store down the road, she’d bought only as much as she could carry and had hunted for bargains. For herself, she bought oatmeal and dry beans and two bags of rice and butter and salt and pepper, but Tommie needed a more-varied diet,
so she’d splurged on half a dozen apples. She also bought hamburger and chicken drumsticks, though both packages were almost out of date and had been marked down to less than a third of the normal price. She’d separated the hamburger and chicken into individual portions right away before putting all of it into the freezer; she removed one portion per day for Tommie’s dinner, which he ate with either the beans or the rice. At night, after watching television, she read him
Go, Dog. Go!
and made sure he brushed his teeth. With the weather warming, she’d promised they would explore the property behind the house.
She hadn’t, however, had the energy to do much more than that. She sat for hours in the rockers out front and slept a lot when Tommie was at school and the house was quiet. Though her exhaustion had remained almost overwhelming since they’d arrived, standing in the orange-walled kitchen reminded her that there was work to do before the house would seem like theirs. After placing the empty glass in the sink, she pulled an old cookie jar from the cupboard. She lifted the lid and found the money roll she’d stashed after moving in. She removed a few bills, knowing she needed to go to the store again, since the groceries were almost gone. After that, she wanted to clean the kitchen from top to bottom, starting with the stove. She also had to empty the refrigerator of all that had been left behind. Getting rid of the god-awful orange walls meant scrubbing them beforehand, as well, to get them ready for painting. She’d always dreamed of a bright-yellow kitchen, something cheerful and welcoming, especially if she added another coat of glossy white paint to the cabinets. After that, she could pick wildflowers, maybe arrange them in one of the jelly jars she’d found in the cupboard. Closing her eyes, she felt a pleasant twinge of anticipation as she imagined how it might look when she was finished.
She counted the remaining money before hiding it again. Though she’d kept a running total in her head, touching and counting the bills made the sum more tangible somehow. It wasn’t enough to live on forever, but as long as she was fine with subsisting on rice and beans and oatmeal, she had time, even if she included the next month’s rent. It was hard, though. On the previous trip to the grocery store, she’d secretly pulled two grapes from a bunch that she couldn’t afford, and the natural, sugary flavor nearly made her moan with pleasure.
Still, the money would run out sooner rather than later, no matter how careful she was or how much she budgeted. She would have to get a job, but that meant paperwork and documents. Social Security number, maybe even a driver’s license. Some employers might require a phone number, as well. She couldn’t possibly use the first two; Gary, no doubt, had already put out an internet alert, which was why she hadn’t bothered to bring her identification with her in the first place. Nor did she have a phone. On her first day, she’d found an abandoned cellphone in the nightstand, but it required a password or fingerprint to access, so it did her no good at all—not to mention the fact that it was someone else’s, even if they’d left it behind. All of which meant she was off the grid: exactly what she needed but a solution that brought with it problems. She supposed that she could lie—simply jot down phony identification numbers on the application—but that also carried risks. Wages were reported to the IRS, and the employer would eventually learn the truth. Which further meant that Gary would learn the truth, too. From his lofty perch at the Department of Homeland Security, Gary had access to virtually any information he wanted.
She knew she needed to find a job that paid cash—babysitting or cleaning houses, or maybe cooking meals or reading books for
someone who was elderly. She wondered if there was a bulletin board somewhere in town that would list such opportunities, and she reminded herself to look for one.
I will find the energy to do all that I need to do.
From upstairs, she heard Tommie’s door squeak open. She watched as he padded down the steps while rubbing the sleep from his eyes, dressed in one of the two shirts she’d thrown into his backpack. She wondered how long it would be before the other kids began to make fun of him for wearing the same clothes over and over. From the refrigerator, she retrieved the milk; from the cupboard, she pulled a box of Cheerios. There was sugar in the cupboard, left by those who’d lived here before, but she didn’t trust that it was safe to eat. Who knew what sort of icky critters had decided to breed in there?
She poured the Cheerios into a bowl and brought the bowl and spoon to the table. She kept the small bottle of his hair wax on the counter and added a dab to her palms. She smoothed his cowlick, then kissed him on the cheek.
“How did you sleep, sweetie?”
He merely shrugged, but she’d expected that. He was quiet in general, but in the mornings, getting him to speak was sometimes like pulling teeth. She reached for the peanut butter and jelly on the counter and the last two pieces of bread in the loaf. She made a sandwich, wrapped it in plastic, and placed it into a paper bag, along with the last apple and enough change to allow him to buy milk. She wished she had enough money for Cheetos or granola bars or Nutter Butters, or even sliced turkey or ham, but it just wasn’t possible. When the lunch was ready, she squeezed the bag into Tommie’s backpack, then took a seat at the table, almost aching with love for him.
“Honey? I asked you a question.”
He took a bite, and only after swallowing did he answer. “Okay.”
When he nodded, she waited. “Did you have a bad dream?” As soon as she asked, she realized she could be speaking about herself.
He shook his head.
“Honey? I’m trying to talk to you. Did something happen last night?”
“It was loud.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, trying to keep any concern from her voice. It couldn’t have been Gary; there was no way he could have found them yet.