He remembered how he had talked to Gus about her. The first time he mentioned her Gus started to shake his head and laugh. «So that’s the ghost you’ve been running from.» When asked what he meant, Gus said, «You know, the ghost, the memory. I’ve been watching you working day and night, so hard you barely have time to catch your breath. People do that for three reasons. Either they are crazy, or stupid, or trying to forget. And with you, I knew you were trying to forget. I just didn’t know what.»
Gus was right, of course. New Bern was haunted now. Haunted by the ghost of her memory. He saw her in the park, their place, every time he walked by. When he sat on the porch at night with his guitar, he saw her beside him, listening as he played the music of his childhood. Everywhere he looked, he saw things that brought her back to life.
EARLIER THAT evening and a hundred miles away, she sat alone on the porch swing of her parents’ home, wondering if she’d made the right decision. She’d struggled with it for days, but in the end she knew she would never forgive herself if she let the opportunity slip away.
Lon didn’t know the real reason she left the following morning. The week before, she’d hinted to him that she might want to visit some antique shops near the coast. «It’s just a couple of days,» she said, «and besides, I need a break from planning the wedding.» She felt bad about the lie, but knew there was no way she could tell him the truth. Her leaving had nothing to do with him, and it wouldn’t be fair of her to ask him to understand.
It was an easy drive from Raleigh, slightly more than two hours, and she arrived a little before eleven. She checked into a small inn downtown, went to her room and unpacked her suitcase, hanging her dresses in the closet and putting everything else in the drawers. She had a quick lunch, asked the waitress for directions to the nearest antique stores, then spent the next few hours shopping. By four thirty, she was back in her room.
She sat on the edge of the bed, picked up the phone and called Lon. He couldn’t speak long, but before they hung up she gave him the phone number where she was staying and promised to call the following day. Good, she thought while hanging up the phone. Routine conversation, nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to make him suspicious.
She’d known him almost four years now, it was 1942 when they met, the world at war and America one year in. She was volunteering at the hospital downtown. The first waves of wounded young soldiers were coming home, and she spent her days with broken men. When Lon, with his easy charm, introduced himself at a party, she saw in him exactly what she needed: someone with confidence about the future and a sense of humour that drove all her fears away.
He was handsome and intelligent, a successful lawyer eight years older than she, and he pursued his job with passion, not only winning cases but also making a name for himself. She understood his vigorous pursuit of success, for her father and most of the men she met in her social circle were the same way. In the caste system of the South, family name and accomplishments were often the most important consideration in marriage. In some cases, they were the only consideration.
Lon was a gentleman, mature and responsible, and during those terrible periods of the war when she needed someone to hold her, he never once turned her away. She felt secure with him and knew he loved her as well and that was why she had accepted his proposal.
Thinking these things made her feel guilty about being here, and she knew she should pack her things and leave before she changed her mind. She picked up her handbag, hesitated and almost walked to the door. But coincidence had pushed her here, and she put the bag down, again realizing that if she quit now she would always wonder what would have happened. She couldn’t live with that.
She went to the bathroom and started a bath. After checking the temperature, she undressed and looked at herself in the mirror. Her body was firm and well proportioned. She’d inherited her mother’s high cheekbones, smooth skin and blonde hair, but her best feature was her own. She had «eyes like ocean waves», as Lon liked to say.
She liked the way a bath relaxed her, and she slipped lower in the water. The day had been long and her back was tense, but she was pleased she had finished shopping so quickly. She had to go back to Raleigh with something tangible, and the things she had picked out would be fine. She made a mental note to find the names of some other stores in the area, then suddenly doubted she would need to. Lon wasn’t the type to check up on her.
She soaked a while longer in the bath before finally getting out. She went to the closet and looked for a dress, finally choosing a light blue one, buttoned up at the front.