Authors: Nicholas Sparks
Tags: #Fiction, #General
When I arrived at Noah’s house the following morning, my eyebrows rose at the sight of the nursery trucks already parked in the drive. There were three large flatbeds crowded with small trees and bushes, while another was loaded with bales of pine straw to spread atop the flower beds, around the trees, and along the fence line. A truck and trailer held various tools and equipment, and three pickups were packed with flats of low flowering plants.
In front of the trucks, workers congregated in groups of five or six. A quick count showed that closer to forty people had come—not the thirty that Little had promised—and all were wearing jeans and baseball caps despite the heat. When I got out of the car, Little approached me with a smile.
“Good—you’re here,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “We’ve been waiting for you. We can get started, then, yes?”
Within minutes, mowers and tools were unloaded, and the air was soon filled with the sound of engines rising and falling as they crisscrossed the property. Some of the workers began to unload the plants, bushes, and trees, stacking them into wheelbarrows and rolling them to their appropriate spots.
But it was the rose garden that attracted the most attention, and I followed Little as he grabbed a set of pruning shears and headed that way, joining the dozen workers who were already waiting for him. Beautifying the garden struck me as the type of job where it is impossible even to know where to begin, but Little simply started pruning the first bush while describing what he was doing.
The workers clustered around him, whispering to one another in Spanish as they watched, then finally dispersed when they understood what he wanted. Hour by hour, the natural colors of the roses were artfully exposed as each bush was thinned and trimmed. Little was adamant that few blooms be lost, necessitating quite a bit of twine as stems were pulled and tied, bent and rotated, into their proper place.
Next came the trellis. Once Little was comfortable, he began to shape the roses that draped it. As he worked, I pointed out where the chairs for the guests would go, and my friend winked.
“You wanted impatiens to line the aisle, yes?”
When I nodded, he brought two fingers to his mouth and whistled. A moment later, flower-filled wheelbarrows were rolled to the spot. Two hours later, I marveled at an aisle gorgeous enough to be photographed by a magazine.
Throughout the morning, the rest of the property began to take shape. Once the yard was mowed, bushes were pruned, and workers started edging around the fence posts, walkways, and the house itself. The electrician arrived to turn on the generator, check the outlets, and the floodlights in the garden. An hour later, the painters arrived; six men in splattered overalls emerged from a run-down van, and they helped the landscaping crew store the furniture in the barn. The man who’d come to pressure-wash the house rolled up the drive and parked next to my car. Within minutes of unloading his equipment, the first intense blast of water hit the wall, and slowly but steadily, each plank turned from gray to white.
With all the individual crews busily at work, I made my way to the workshop and grabbed a ladder. The boards from the windows had to be removed, so I set myself to the task. With something to do, the afternoon passed quickly.
By four, the landscapers were loading their trucks and getting ready to head back; the pressure washer and painters were finishing up as well. I had been able to take off most of the boards; a few remained on the second floor, but I knew I could do those in the morning.
By the time I finished storing the boards under the house, the property seemed strangely silent, and I found myself surveying all that had been done.
Like all half-completed projects, it looked worse than it had when we’d begun that morning. Pieces of landscaping equipment dotted the property; empty pots had been piled haphazardly. Both inside and out, only half the walls had been touched up and reminded me of detergent commercials where one brand promises to clean a white T-shirt better than the next. A mound of yard scrap was piled near the fence, and while the outer hearts of the rose garden had been completed, the inner hearts looked forlorn and wild.
Nonetheless, I felt strangely relieved. It had been a good day’s work, one that left no doubt that everything would be finished in time. Jane would be amazed, and knowing she was on her way home, I was starting for my car when I saw Harvey Wellington, the minister, leaning on the fence that separated Noah’s property from his. Slowing my pace, I hesitated only briefly before crossing the yard to join him. His forehead glistened like polished mahogany, and his spectacles perched low on his nose. Like me, he was dressed as if he’d spent most of the day working outside. As I drew near, he nodded toward the house.
“Getting it all ready for the weekend, I see,” he said.
“Trying,” I said.
“You’ve got enough people working on it, that’s for sure. It looked like a parking lot out there today. What did you have? Fifty people total?” “Something like that.”
He whistled under his breath as we shook hands. “That’ll take a bite out of the old wallet, won’t it?”
“I’m almost afraid to find out,” I said.
He laughed. “So how many you expecting this weekend?”
“I’d guess about a hundred or so.”
“It’s going to be some party, that’s for sure,” he said. “I know Alma’s been looking forward to it. This wedding’s been all she can talk about lately. We both think it’s wonderful that you’re making such a big deal about it.” “It’s the least I could do.”
For a long moment, he held my gaze without responding. As he watched me, I had the strange impression that despite our limited acquaintance, he understood me quite well. It was a little unnerving, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. As a pastor, he was frequently sought for counsel and advice, and I sensed the kindness of someone who’d learned to listen well and sympathize with another’s plight. He was, I thought, a man whom hundreds probably regarded as one of their closest friends.
As if knowing what I was thinking, he smiled. “So, eight o’clock?”
“Any earlier, and I think it would be too hot.”
“It’ll be hot anyway. But I don’t think anyone would care one way or the other.”
He motioned toward the house. “I’m glad you’re finally doing something about it.
That’s a wonderful place. Always has been.”
He removed his spectacles and began wiping the lenses with his shirttail. “Yeah, I’ll tell you—it’s been a shame watching what’s become of it over the last few years. All it ever needed was for someone to care for it again.” He put his spectacles back on, smiling softly. “It’s funny, but have you ever noticed that the more special something is, the more people seem to take it for granted? It’s like they think it won’t ever change. Just like this house here. All it ever needed was a little attention, and it would never have ended up like this in the first place.”
There were two messages on the answering machine when I arrived home: one from Dr. Barnwell informing me that Noah was back at Creekside and another from Jane saying that she would meet me there around seven.
By the time I arrived at Creekside, most of the family had come and gone. Only Kate remained by Noah’s side when I reached his room, and she brought a finger to her lips as I entered. She rose from her chair and we hugged.
“He just fell asleep,” she whispered. “He must have been exhausted.” I glanced at him, surprised. In all the years I’d known him, he’d never napped during the day. “Is he doing okay?”
“He was a little cranky while we were trying to get him settled in again, but other than that, he seemed fine.” She tugged at my sleeve. “So tell me—how did it go at the house today? I want to hear all about it.” I filled her in on the progress, watching her rapt expression as she tried to imagine it. “Jane’ll love it,” she said. “Oh, that reminds me—I talked to her a little while ago. She called to see how Daddy was doing.” “Did they have any luck with the dresses?”
“I’ll let her tell you about it. But she sounded pretty excited on the phone.” She reached for the purse that was slung over the chair. “Listen, I should probably go. I’ve been here all afternoon, and I know Grayson is waiting for me.” She kissed me on the cheek. “Take care of Daddy, but try not to wake him, okay? He needs his sleep.”
“I’ll be quiet,” I promised.
I moved to the chair next to the window and was just about to sit down when I heard a ragged whisper.
“Hello, Wilson. Thanks for dropping by.”
When I turned toward him, he winked.
“I thought you were sleeping.”
“Nah,” he said. He began to sit up in the bed. “I had to fake it. She’s been fussing over me all day like a baby. She even followed me into the bathroom again.”
I laughed. “Just what you wanted, right? A little pampering from your daughter?” “Oh, yeah, that’s just what I need. I didn’t have half that fussing when I was in the hospital. By the way she was acting, you’d think I had one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel.”
“Well, you’re in rare form today. I take it you’re feeling like new?” “Could be better,” he said with a shrug. “Could be worse, though, too. But my head’s fine, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“No dizziness? Or headaches? Maybe you should rest a bit anyway. If you need me to feed you some yogurt, just let me know.”
He waggled a finger at me. “Now don’t you start with me. I’m a patient man, but I’m not a saint. And I’m not in the mood. I’ve been cooped up for days and haven’t so much as smelled a breath of fresh air.” He motioned toward the closet. “Would you mind getting me my sweater?”
I already knew where he wanted to go.
“It’s still pretty warm out there,” I offered.
“Just get me the sweater,” he said. “And if you offer to help me put it on, I should warn you that I just might punch you in the nose.” A few minutes later, we left the room, Wonder Bread in hand. As he shuffled along, I could see him beginning to relax. Though Creekside would always be a foreign place to us, it had become home to Noah, and he was obviously comfortable here. It was clear how much others had missed him, too—at each open door, he waved a greeting and said a few words to his friends, promising most of them that he’d be back later to read.
He refused to let me take his arm, so I walked close to his side. He seemed slightly more unsteady than usual, and it wasn’t until we were out of the building that I was confident he could make it on his own. Still, at the pace we walked, it took a while to reach the pond, and I had plenty of time to observe that the root had been taken out. I wondered if Kate had reminded one of her brothers to take care of it or whether they’d remembered on their own.
We sat in our usual places and gazed out over the water, though I couldn’t see the swan. Figuring it was hiding in the shallows off to either side of us, I leaned back in my seat. Noah began to tear the bread into small pieces.
“I heard what you told Kate about the house,” he said. “How are my roses doing?”
“They’re not finished, but you’ll like what the crew has done so far.” He piled the pieces of bread in his lap. “That garden means a lot to me. It’s almost as old as you are.”
“The first bushes went in the ground in April 1951,” he said, nodding. “Of course, I’ve had to replace most of them over the years, but that’s when I came up with the design and started working on it.”
“Jane told me you surprised Allie with it . . . to show how much you loved her.” He snorted. “That’s only half the story,” he said. “But I’m not surprised she thinks that. Sometimes I think Jane and Kate believe I spent every waking moment doting on Allie.”
“You mean you didn’t?” I asked, feigning shock.
He laughed. “Hardly. We had rows now and then, just like everyone else. We were just good at making up. But as for the garden, I suppose they’re partly right.
At least in the beginning.” He set the pieces of bread off to one side. “I planted it when Allie was pregnant with Jane. She wasn’t more than a few months along, and she was sick all the time. I figured it would pass after the first few weeks, but it didn’t. There were days when she could barely get out of bed, and I knew that with summer coming, she was going to be even more miserable. So I wanted to give her something pretty to look at that she could see from her window.” He squinted into the sun. “Did you know that at first there was only one heart, not five?”
I raised my eyebrows. “No, I didn’t.”
“I didn’t plan on that, of course, but after Jane was born, I sort of got to thinking that the first heart looked mighty skimpy and I needed to plant some more bushes to fill it out. But I kept putting it off because it had been so much work the first time, and by the time I finally got around to the task, she was already pregnant again. When she saw what I was doing, she just assumed I’d done it because we had another child on the way, and she told me it was the sweetest thing I’d ever done for her. After that, I couldn’t exactly stop.
That’s what I mean when I say it’s only partly right. The first one might have been a romantic gesture; but by the last one, it felt more like a chore. Not just the planting, but keeping them going. Roses are tough. When they’re young, they sort of sprout up like a tree, but you have to keep cutting them back so they form right. Every time they started blooming, I’d have to head out with my shears to prune them back into shape, and for a long time, the garden seemed as though it would never look right. And it hurt, too. Those thorns are sharp. I spent a lot of years with my hands bandaged up like a mummy.” I smiled. “I’ll bet she appreciated what you were doing, though.” “Oh, she did. For a while, anyway. Until she asked me to plow the whole thing under.”