He thought about Allie at night. He wrote to her once a month but never received a reply. Eventually he wrote one final letter and forced himself to accept the fact that the summer they’d spent with one another was the only thing they’d ever share.
For the next eight years, he worked for Goldman. As the years dragged on, the company grew and he was promoted. By 1940, he had mastered the business and was running the entire operation, managing a staff of thirty. The yard had become the largest scrap-metal dealer on the east coast.
During that time, he dated a few different women. He became serious with one, a waitress from the local cafe with deep blue eyes and silky black hair. Although they dated for two years and had many good times together, he never came to feel the same way about her as he did about Allie.
Towards the end of their relationship she’d told him once, «I wish I could give you what you’re looking for, but I don’t know what it is. There’s a part of you that you keep closed off from everyone, including me. It’s like your mind is on someone else and you keep waiting for her to take you away from all this…» A month later, she visited him at work and told him she’d met someone else. He understood. They parted as friends, and the following year he received a postcard from her saying she was married. He hadn’t heard from her since.
In December 1941, when he was twenty-six, the war began, just as Goldman had predicted. Noah walked into his office the following month and informed Goldman of his intention to join the army, then returned to New Bern to say goodbye to his father. Five weeks later, he was in training camp. While there, he received a letter from Goldman thanking him for his work, together with a copy of a certificate giving him the right to get a small percentage of the scrap yard if it was ever sold.
He spent his next three years with Patton’s Third Army, tramping through deserts in North Africa and forests in Europe. He watched his friends die around him; watched as some of them were buried thousands of miles from home.
He remembered the war ending in Europe, then a few months later in Japan. Just before he was discharged, he received a letter from a lawyer in New Jersey representing Morris Goldman. When he met the lawyer, he found out that Goldman had died a year earlier and his estate had been liquidated. The business had been sold, and Noah was given a cheque for almost seventy thousand dollars.
The following week he returned to New Bern and bought the house. He remembered bringing his father around later, pointing out the changes, he intended to make. His father seemed weak as he walked, coughing. Noah was concerned, but his father told him not to worry, assuring him that he had the flu.
Less than one month later, his father died of pneumonia and was buried next to his wife in the local cemetery. Noah tried to stop by regularly to leave some flowers. And every night he took a moment to say a prayer for the man who’d taught him everything that mattered.
SOON HE went back to the house. He got into his old Dodge truck and went to see Gus. He always stopped there when he was going to the store, because Gus’s family didn’t have a car. One of the daughters hopped up and rode with him, and they did their shopping.
When he got home, he didn’t unpack the groceries right away. Instead, he showered, found a Budweiser and a book of poetry, and went to sit on the porch.
SHE STILL did not believe it, even as she held the proof in her hands. It had been in the newspaper at her parents’ house three Sundays ago. She had gone to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee, and when she’d returned to the table her father had smiled and pointed at a small picture. «Remember this?»
He handed her the paper and, after an uninterested first glance, something in the picture caught her eye and she took a closer look. «It can’t be,» she whispered, and when her father looked at her curiously, she ignored him, sat down and read the article without speaking. She vaguely remembered her mother coming to the table and sitting opposite her, and when she finally put aside the paper, her mother was staring at her. «Are you okay?» she asked over her coffee cup. «You look a little pale.»
Allie didn’t answer right away, she couldn’t, and then she noticed that her hands were shaking. So it started.
«And here it will end, one way or the other,» she whispered again. She refolded the piece of paper and put it back. And now, after three weeks of long walks alone, after three weeks of distraction, it was the reason she’d come.
When asked, she said her strange behaviour was due to stress. It was the perfect excuse; everyone understood, including Lon, and that’s why he hadn’t argued when she’d wanted to get away for a couple of days. The wedding plans were stressful to everyone involved. Almost five hundred people were invited, including the governor, one senator and the ambassador to Peru. It was too much, in her opinion, but their engagement was news and had dominated the social pages since they had announced their plans six months ago.
She took a deep breath and stood again. «It’s now or never,» she whispered, then picked up her things and went to the door. She went downstairs and went out to her car. She slipped behind the wheel, started the engine and turned right onto Front Street.
She still knew her way around the small town, even though she hadn’t been here in years.
A magnificent oak tree on the riverbank came into view, and the memories became more intense. She remembered sitting beneath the tree on a hot July day with someone who looked at her with a longing that took everything else away. And at that moment she’d first fallen in love.
He was two years older than she was. He had the calloused hands and broad shoulders that came to those who worked hard for a living and the first faint lines were beginning to form around dark eyes that seemed to read her every thought.
He was tall and strong, with light brown hair, and handsome in his own way, but most of all she remembered his voice. He had read to her that day as they lay beneath the tree with an accent that was soft and fluent, almost musical in quality. She remembered closing her eyes, listening closely and letting the words he was reading touch her soul.
Another turn in the road and she finally saw the house in the distance. It had changed dramatically from what she remembered. She slowed the car, turning into the long, tree- lined drive.
She took a deep breath when she saw him on the porch, watching her car. He was dressed casually. From a distance, he looked the same as he had back then.
Her car continued forward slowly, and then finally stopped beneath an oak tree that shaded the front of the house. She turned the key, never taking her eyes from him. He stepped off the porch and started approaching her, walking easily, then suddenly stopped as she emerged from the car. For a long time all they could do was stare at each other without moving.
Allison Nelson, twenty-nine years old and engaged, a socialite, searching for answers, and Noah Calhoun, the dreamer, thirty-one, visited by the ghost that had come to dominate his life.