For Micah and Christine
This novel was both a joy and a challenge to write; a joy because it’s my hope that the characters reflect the honor and integrity of those who serve in the military, and a challenge because… well, to be completely honest, I find that every novel I write is challenging. There are those people, however, who make the challenge that much easier, and without further ado, I’d like to thank them.
To Cat, my wife and the woman I love with all my heart. Thanks for your patience, babe.
To Miles, Ryan, Landon, Lexie, and Savannah, my children. Thanks for your endless enthusiasm, kids.
To Theresa Park, my agent. Thanks for everything.
To Jamie Raab, my editor. Thanks for your kindness and wisdom.
To David Young, the new CEO of Hachette Book Group USA, Maureen Egen, Jennifer Romanello, Harvey-Jane Kowal, Shannon O’Keefe, Sharon Krassney, Abby Koons, Denise DiNovi, Edna Farley, Howie Sanders, David Park, Flag, Scott Schwimer, Lynn Harris, Mark Johnson… I’m thankful for your friendship.
To my fellow coaches and athletes on the New Bern High track team (which won both the indoor and outdoor North Carolina State Championships): Dave Simpson, Philemon Gray, Karjuan Williams, Darryl Reynolds, Anthony Hendrix, Eddie Armstrong, Andrew Hendrix, Mike Weir, Dan Castelow, Marques Moore, Raishad Dobie, Darryl Barnes, Jayr Whitfield, Kelvin Hardesty, Julian Carter, and Brett Whitney… what a season, guys!
What does it mean to truly love another?
There was a time in my life when I thought I knew the answer: It meant that I’d care for Savannah more deeply than I cared for myself and that we’d spend the rest of our lives together. It wouldn’t have taken much. She once told me that the key to happiness was achievable dreams, and hers were nothing out of the ordinary. Marriage, family… the basics. It meant I’d have a steady job, the house with the white picket fence, and a minivan or SUV big enough to haul our kids to school or to the dentist or off to soccer practice or piano recitals. Two or three kids, she was never clear on that, but my hunch is that when the time came, she would have suggested that we let nature take its course and allow God to make the decision. She was like that—religious, I mean—and I suppose that was part of the reason I fell for her. But no matter what was going on in our lives, I could imagine lying beside her in bed at the end of the day, holding her while we talked and laughed, lost in each other’s arms.
It doesn’t sound so far-fetched, right? When two people love each other? That’s what I thought, too. And while part of me still wants to believe it’s possible, I know it’s not going to happen. When I leave here again, I’ll never come back.
For now, though, I’ll sit on the hillside overlooking her ranch and wait for her to appear. She won’t be able to see me, of course. In the army, you learn to blend into your surroundings, and I learned well, because I had no desire to die in some backward foreign dump in the middle of the Iraqi desert. But I had to come back to this small North Carolina mountain town to find out what happened. When a person sets a thing in motion, there’s a feeling of unease, almost regret, until you learn the truth.
But of this I am certain: Savannah will never know I’ve been here today.
Part of me aches at the thought of her being so close yet so untouchable, but her story and mine are different now. It wasn’t easy for me to accept this simple truth, because there was a time when our stories were the same, but that was six years and two lifetimes ago. There are memories for both of us, of course, but I’ve learned that memories can have a physical, almost living presence, and in this, Savannah and I are different as well. If hers are stars in the nighttime sky, mine are the haunted empty spaces in between. And unlike her, I’ve been burdened by questions I’ve asked myself a thousand times since the last time we were together. Why did I do it? And would I do it again?
It was I, you see, who ended it.
On the trees surrounding me, the leaves are just beginning their slow turn toward the color of fire, glowing as the sun peeks over the horizon. Birds have begun their morning calls, and the air is perfumed with the scent of pine and earth; different from the brine and salt of my hometown. In time, the front door cracks open, and it’s then that I see her. Despite the distance between us, I find myself holding my breath as she steps into the dawn. She stretches before descending the front steps and heads around the side. Beyond her, the horse pasture shimmers like a green ocean, and she passes through the gate that leads toward it. A horse calls out a greeting, as does another, and my first thought is that Savannah seems too small to be moving so easily among them. But she was always comfortable with horses, and they were comfortable with her. A half dozen nibble on grass near the fence post, mainly quarter horses, and Midas, her white-socked black Arabian, stands off to one side. I rode with her once, luckily without injury, and as I was hanging on for dear life, I remember thinking that she looked so relaxed in the saddle that she could have been watching television. Savannah takes a moment to greet Midas now. She rubs his nose while she whispers something, she pats his haunches, and when she turns away, his ears prick up as she heads toward the barn.
She vanishes, then emerges again, carrying two pails—oats, I think. She hangs the pails on two fence posts, and a couple of the horses trot toward them. When she steps back to make room, I see her hair flutter in the breeze before she retrieves a saddle and bridle. While Midas eats, she readies him for her ride, and a few minutes later she’s leading him from the pasture, toward the trails in the forest, looking exactly as she did six years ago. I know it isn’t true—I saw her up close last year and noticed the first fine lines beginning to form around her eyes— but the prism through which I view her remains for me unchanging. To me, she will always be twenty-one and I will always be twenty-three. I’d been stationed in Germany; I had yet to go to Fallujah or Baghdad or receive her letter, which I read in the railroad station in Samawah in the initial weeks of the campaign; I had yet to return home from the events that changed the course of my life.
Now, at twenty-nine, I sometimes wonder about the choices I’ve made. The army has become the only life I know. I don’t know whether I should be pissed or pleased about that fact; most of the time, I find myself going back and forth, depending on the day. When people ask, I tell them I’m a grunt, and I mean it. I still live on base in Germany, I have maybe a thousand dollars in savings, and I haven’t been on a date in years. I don’t surf much anymore even on leave, but on my days off I ride my Harley north or south, wherever my mood strikes me. The Harley was the single best thing I’ve ever bought for myself, though it cost a fortune over there. It suits me, since I’ve become something of a loner. Most of my buddies have left the service, but I’ll probably get sent back to Iraq in the next couple of months. At least, those are the rumors around base. When I first met Savannah Lynn Curtis—to me, she’ll always be Savannah Lynn Curtis—I could never have predicted my life would turn out the way it has or believed I’d make the army my career.
But I did meet her; that’s the thing that makes my current life so strange. I fell in love with her when we were together, then fell deeper in love with her in the years we were apart. Our story has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. And although this is the way all stories unfold, I still can’t believe that ours didn’t go on forever.
I reflect on these things, and as always, our time together comes back to me. I find myself remembering how it began, for now these memories are all I have left.