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Authors: Nicholas Sparks

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BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
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“There were crickets. Like a million of them. I think there were frogs, too.”

She smiled. “We’re in the country, so you’re probably right.”

He nodded. Took another bite.

“How do you like the school? And your teacher?”

For the life of her, Beverly couldn’t remember the teacher’s name, but then again, there wasn’t much time left in the school year and she’d only been at the school long enough to sign him up, so she supposed she could be forgiven for her lapse.

“Tommie?”

“She’s okay,” he said with a sigh.

“Have you made any friends yet?”

He ate another spoonful of cereal, then finally looked up at her. “Can we get a dog?”

He’d asked for a dog before, yet another reminder that there was so much more she wished she could do for him. Gary had never allowed one, but even though that life was behind them now, she knew she couldn’t afford to take care of a dog. And who knew when they’d have to run again? “We’ll see,” she hedged.

He nodded, knowing exactly what her answer meant.

When Tommie was finished with his cereal, Beverly tugged at his shirt, straightening it, then helped him on with his backpack. Still barefoot, she ducked upstairs to her bedroom and put on her shoes before walking with her son toward the stump near the road, where they sat and waited for the school bus. The air was becoming soupy, and she knew it was going to be another hot one.

The bus arrived minutes after they’d taken their seats, and as Beverly watched Tommie silently board the bus, she noticed the heat was already turning the horizon into liquid.

The small grocery store
nearest the house wouldn’t be open for at least an hour, so after the bus vanished in a swirl of gravel dust, Beverly wandered back inside, thinking it was finally time to tackle the oven.

She went to the bathroom and made a quick ponytail, using a rubber band she found in one of the drawers, then searched under the kitchen sink and in the pantry for the cleanser. She sprayed the surface of the stovetop and began to scrub, noting the burns and scratches, but some of the spills seemed welded to the surface. With a strange sense of satisfaction, she wrapped the tip of a butter knife in the dishrag and, bearing down hard, watched the crusty remains slowly curl away.

After the stovetop, she’d nearly sweated through her shirt from exertion. She sprayed cleaner into the oven, knowing it needed to soak for a while, then went upstairs to the bathroom and removed her shirt. She washed it with a bit of shampoo, then hung it to dry over the shower curtain. It was pointless to put a single piece of clothing in the washer. After that, she started to
get ready. She slipped into a clean shirt, pinned up her hair, and slid on the wig, becoming a short-haired brunette again, before wrapping her chest in the Ace bandage. She added dark foundation, changing her complexion, and applied dark lipstick. After donning her sunglasses and baseball hat, she barely recognized herself in the mirror. Perfect.

She left the house and marched down the gravel road that led toward town, feeling the crunch beneath her feet. She stopped twice to peek over her shoulder at the house, trying to gauge when it could no longer be seen from the road. Since moving in, she’d automatically turned toward the windows whenever she heard a vehicle approaching, watching to see if it slowed, and she wanted to know how far away a vehicle could pull over and park without being seen.

It took almost an hour to walk the three miles to the store; it would take longer on the way back because she’d be carrying bags, one of which would include a gallon of milk. She knew it was good exercise, just as she knew she was already too thin and that too much exercise was the opposite of what she needed. As she’d glanced in the bathroom mirror while hanging her shirt, she was able to count almost every rib.

The store was family-owned, not part of a chain. It was called Red’s and looked as though it had been in business since Kennedy was president. Across the street, there was a gas station that appeared equally dated, next to a small hardware store. After that, there was a bunch of nothing for at least another mile, until the motel and the diner. It might be less expensive to shop if she ventured farther into town to the bigger stores, but that meant a much longer walk.

Unlike in major grocery stores, the selection was limited, but that didn’t matter, because her list was limited. Into the cart she piled apples and milk and bread and another box of cereal. She
found more hamburger and chicken, but this time nothing was marked down. Despite her worries about money, she splurged on carrots and cauliflower, knowing that Tommie needed vegetables. She could steam the cauliflower, add milk and butter, and serve it like mashed potatoes or simply roast it. With every item added to the cart, she mentally subtracted the cash she knew she had. She didn’t want to have to ask the cashier to take something away that had already been rung up. She didn’t want any unnecessary attention.

There was one woman in line at the checkout, and Beverly could already tell that the cashier was the chatty sort. Next to the checkout stands was a rack of magazines; Beverly picked one up. When it was her turn, the cashier pulled the cart forward and began unloading items, already beginning to talk. Beverly stood in profile—exposing more of her back than her front to the cashier—her gaze buried in the magazine to keep the woman from speaking with her. From the corner of her eye, she watched the cashier ringing up items. The woman’s name tag read
peg
. Beverly set the magazine aside as the last item was loaded and reached for the bills she’d stashed in her pocket, suddenly remembering there was something she needed to know.

“Is there a bulletin board with job listings anywhere? Like cleaning or babysitting?”

“There’s a board near the exit, but I don’t have any idea what’s up there,” Peg said with a shrug. She loaded the items into plastic bags. “Did you find everything?”

“Yes,” Beverly said. She reached for the first of the bags, looping one of the plastic handles around her arm.

Peg glanced up, then seemed to peer even closer.

“Excuse me, but don’t I know you? You look sort of familiar.”

“I don’t think so,” Beverly mumbled. She reached for the other bags and began walking toward the exit, feeling Peg’s eyes on her,
wondering if Peg was in the store the last time she’d shopped, feeling a growing sense of dread. Why else would Peg think she seemed familiar? What else could it be?

Unless…

For a moment, she felt almost as though she was about to drop the bags; questions began to tumble and spin through her mind like clothes in the dryer.

What if Peg’s husband worked for law enforcement?

What if Peg’s husband had seen a bulletin about her and brought it home?

What if Peg’s husband had asked Peg to stay on the lookout?

What if…?

She stopped and closed her eyes, trying to remain steady on her feet, trying to slow her mind.

“No,” she said aloud, opening her eyes. That couldn’t have happened. There was no doubt Gary had already instituted a nationwide manhunt—
Kidnapper on the loose!
—but would Peg’s husband have brought home the report? To have his wife study it, so she could watch for random wanted strangers, in case they wandered into the store? In a town like this? She wasn’t even sure if Peg’s husband was in law enforcement; in fact, she wasn’t even certain that Peg was married at all.

It was just her mind playing tricks again. The very idea bordered on the impossible, and besides, even if the impossible had happened, Beverly reminded herself that she now looked nothing like any of her recent photographs. Peg must have seen her on her previous shopping trip, that’s all. For all Beverly knew, Peg said the same thing to every stranger who walked into the store, an opener for a chatty conversation.

Taking a long breath, she decided that Peg hadn’t recognized her.

She decided she was just being paranoid.

At the bulletin board
near the exit, there weren’t any listings for the kinds of work Beverly needed, which meant she’d probably have to venture farther into town. Maybe she should talk to the waitress at the diner again; perhaps she knew of someone personally who might need some cooking or cleaning or babysitting. But that meant walking in the opposite direction—with groceries—so it would have to wait.

Instead, on the walk home, she thought about the clothes Tommie needed, if only because she hoped it would keep her arms from aching. But they ached anyway, and she wished she had a car or even a bicycle with a basket.

Back at the house, Beverly put the groceries away and headed to the bathroom. As she had earlier, she washed the shirt she’d been wearing with shampoo, since it was practically soaked through. The heat of the day was already atrocious, like invisible steam, sticky and thick. She thought about putting on the earlier shirt, but it was still damp, and what was the point? Tommie wasn’t home, and knowing she had more cleaning to do, she took
off her disguise and unwrapped the Ace bandage. Then—thinking,
Why not?
—she took off her jeans, as well. She might as well be comfortable. In her bra and panties, she returned to the kitchen to finish the oven.

She’d imagined she’d be weary from the trip to the store and back, but she actually felt…
good.
Like she had energy to burn
. I escaped,
she told herself.
Tommie is safe, and now we have a home, and there’s no way that Peg recognized me.
The realizations made her almost giddy with possibility, and she laughed aloud. On the kitchen counter was an old radio, and she turned it on, adjusting the dial until she found the music she wanted. Beyond the window, people worked in the distant fields, but they were so far away she wasn’t worried she’d be seen half naked.

Besides,
she reasoned,
it’s my house and I have things to do.

First up was to get rid of all the old food. Cleansers, she could keep. Who would poison cleansers? She remembered seeing trash bags under the sink and, pulling a couple from the box, she shook them open and set them near the refrigerator. There was no reason to check the dates; just toss everything, except for what she’d purchased recently. Into the garbage bag went cheese, condiments, pickles, jelly, olives, salad dressings, and something no doubt disgusting that had been wrapped in foil and forgotten. Even an old pizza box with a couple of pieces that could have been used as a substitute for concrete. She did the same thing with the freezer, which meant trashing everything except the chicken and hamburger. It took all of ten minutes, and she lugged the now-full trash bag to the huge green garbage can she’d spotted behind the house, the one that would be picked up by the road. She should have asked the owner when the garbage truck came by, but she assumed that she’d figure it out eventually.

Next she emptied the cupboards, tossing that garbage bag as well. Afterward, she stood before the refrigerator and cupboards,
opening the doors one after the other, seeing their emptiness, except the food she needed for Tommie and herself, and suddenly feeling even better.

I am finally and truly moving forward.

She turned her efforts back to the oven. The cleanser had done its work, and the grime came off easier than she expected. It didn’t appear new when she finished—there were still scorch marks on both sides, impossible to remove—but she suspected it was cleaner than it had been in years. Once that was done, she got the beans soaking in water from the tap.

The sight of the beans reminded her that she should probably eat—she hadn’t had anything all day—but she didn’t want to break her rhythm. Instead, she wiped the counters, paying special attention to the corners, and scrubbed at the lime stain in the sink.

Climbing onto the counter to wipe down the upper cabinets, she again noticed minor grease stains on the wall and ceiling. Dragging out the stepladder, she started in on the ceiling, spraying cleanser with one hand and scrubbing with the other. When her arms got tired—which they did a lot—she shook them, then went back to work. The walls came next. Neither the ceiling nor the walls had to be perfect, of course—just clean enough for the primer and paint to stick—but it still took almost three hours to finish.

Afterward, she put the cleansers and stepladder away, set the rags on top of the washer, and finally made her way to the shower. She luxuriated in the spray of hot water and her own sense of accomplishment.

In front of the mirror, she dressed and, after towel-drying her hair, brushed out the tangles. Tommie would be home from school soon.

BOOK: Dreamland: A Novel
13.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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