Home > The Return

The Return
Author: Nicholas Sparks

Prologue

 

 

2019

 

The church resembles an alpine chapel, the kind you might find in the mountains outside Salzburg, and inside the cool air is welcoming. Because it’s August in the South, the temperature is sweltering, made worse by the suit and tie I’m wearing. In my daily life, I generally don’t wear suits. They’re uncomfortable and as a physician, I’ve learned that my patients respond better to me when I’m dressed more casually, as they tend to be.

I’m here to attend a wedding. I’ve known the bride for more than five years now, though I’m not sure that she would consider us friends. Though we’d spoken regularly for more than a year after she left New Bern, our relationship since then has been limited to a couple of texts every now and then, sometimes instigated by her, sometimes by me. We do, however, have an undeniable bond, one that has its roots in events that occurred years ago. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember the man I was when our paths first crossed, but isn’t that normal? Life endlessly offers us chances to set new directions and in the process we grow and change; when we look in the rearview mirror, we catch a glimpse of former selves who sometimes seem unrecognizable.

Some things haven’t changed—my name, for instance—but I’m thirty-seven now and in the early stages of a new career, one I’d never considered in the first three decades of my life. While I’d once loved the piano, I no longer play the instrument; where I’d grown up with a loving family, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of them. There are reasons for that, but I’ll get to those parts later.

Today, I’m simply glad to be here, and to have made it on time. My flight from Baltimore had been delayed and the line to pick up my rental car was long. Though I’m not the last to arrive, the church is more than half full and I find a seat in the third row from the back, doing my best to slip in unobserved. The pews in front of me are filled with women wearing the kind of hats you expect to find at the Kentucky Derby, extravagant confections of bows and flowers that goats might enjoy eating. The sight makes me smile, a reminder that in the South, there are always moments when it’s possible to slip into a world that seems to exist nowhere else.

As I continue to take in my surroundings, the sight of flowers also makes me think about bees. Bees have been part of my life for most of my living memory. They are remarkable and wonderful creatures, endlessly interesting to me. These days, I tend to more than a dozen beehives—it’s much less work than you might imagine—and I’ve come to believe that the bees take care of me in the same way they take care of everyone. Without them, human life would nearly be impossible, since we rely on bees for a large part of our entire food supply.

There’s something impossibly wonderful about that concept, that life as we know it can come down to something as simple as a bee making its way from one plant to another. It makes me believe my part-time hobby is important in the grand scheme of things, and yet, I further understand that tending beehives also led me here, to this small-town church, far from the landmarks of home. Of course, my story—like any good story—is also the story of events and circumstances and other people as well, including a pair of old-timers who liked to sit in rocking chairs in front of an old mercantile store in North Carolina. Most important, it’s the story of two different women, though one was really just a girl at the time.

I’m the first to notice that when others tell their stories, they tend to frame them in ways that make them the star. I’ll probably fall into the same trap, but I’d like to offer the caveat that most of the events still strike me as accidental—throughout my telling, please remember that I regard myself as no kind of hero.

As for the ending of this story, I suppose this wedding is a coda of sorts. Five years ago, I would have been hard-pressed to say whether the conclusion of these intertwining tales was a happy, tragic, or bittersweet one. And now? Frankly, I’m even less certain, as I’ve come here wondering whether the story might in some winding fashion pick up exactly where it left off.

To understand what I mean, you’ll have to travel back in time with me, to revisit a world that despite all that has happened in the intervening years, still feels close enough to touch.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

2014

 

I first noticed the girl walking past my house the day after I’d moved in. Over the next month and a half, I saw her shuffle by a few times a week, head down and shoulders hunched. For a long time, neither of us said a word to each other.

I suspected she was in her teens—something about the way she carried herself suggested she was struggling beneath the twin burdens of low self-esteem and irritation at the world—but at thirty-two I’d reached the age where it was almost impossible for me to tell. Aside from noting her long brown hair and wide-set eyes, the only thing I knew for sure about her was that she lived in the trailer park up the road and that she liked to walk. Or more likely, she had to walk, because she didn’t own a car.

The April skies were clear, the temperature hovering in the low seventies, with just enough breeze to carry the perfumed aroma of flowers. The dogwoods and azaleas in the yard had roared into bloom almost overnight, framing the gravel road that wound past my grandfather’s house just outside New Bern, North Carolina, a place I’d recently inherited.

And I, Trevor Benson, convalescing physician and disabled veteran by profession, was shaking mothballs from a box along the base of the front porch, lamenting that it wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my morning. The problem with doing chores around the house was never knowing quite when you might be finished, since there was always something else that needed to be done…or whether fixing up the old place was even worthwhile at all.

The house—and I used the term loosely—wasn’t much by way of appearance and the years had taken their toll. My grandfather built it himself after returning from World War II, and though he could build things to last, he didn’t have a lot of talent when it came to design. The house was a rectangle with porches on the front and back—two bedrooms, kitchen, family room, and two bathrooms; the cedar siding had faded to a grayish silver over the years, mimicking my grandfather’s hair. The roof had been patched, air seeped through the windows, and the kitchen floor slanted to the point that if liquid spilled, it became a tiny river that flowed to the door that led to the back porch. I like to think it made cleaning up easier for my grandfather, who’d lived by himself the last thirty years of his life.

The property, however, was special. It was a shade over six acres, with an aging, slightly tilting barn and a honey shed—where my grandfather harvested his honey—and dotted with seemingly every flowering plant known to mankind, including clover patches and wildflowers. From now until the end of summer, the property would resemble a ground-level fireworks display. It was also situated on Brices Creek, where dark, brackish water flowed so slowly that it often reflected the sky like a mirror. Sunsets turned the creek into a cacophony of burgundy and red and orange and yellow, while the slowly fading rays pierced the curtain of Spanish moss draped over the tree branches.

The honey bees loved the place, which had been my grandfather’s intent, since I’m pretty sure he loved bees more than people. There were about twenty beehives on the property; he’d been a part-time apiarist all his life, and it often struck me that the hives were in better condition than either the house or the barn. I’d checked on the hives a few times from a distance since my arrival here, and though it was still early in the season, I could tell the colonies were healthy.

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