Staying in Atlanta, the place she'd grown up, would have been impossible. Once Kyle was born, she'd used the money her mother had left her to stay at home with him. At the time, she considered it a temporary leave of absence. Once he was a little older, she had planned to go back to teaching. The money, she knew, would run out eventually, and she had to earn a living. Besides, teaching was something she'd loved. She'd missed her students and fellow teachers after her first week away. Now, years later, she was still at home with Kyle and the world of teaching in a school was nothing but a vague and distant memory, something more akin to a dream than a reality. She couldn't remember a single lesson plan or the names of the students she had taught. If she didn't know better, she would have sworn that she'd never done it at all.
Youth offers the promise of happiness, but life offers the realities of grief. Her father, her mother, her grandparentsall gone before she turned twenty-one. At that point in her life she'd been to five different funeral homes yet legally couldn't enter a bar to wash the sorrow away. She'd suffered more than her fair share of challenges, but God, it seemed, couldn't stop at just that. Like Job's struggles, hers continued to go on. "Middle-class lifestyle?" Not anymore. "Friends you've grown up with?" You must leave them behind. "A job to enjoy?" It is too much to ask. And Kyle, the sweet, wonderful boy for whom all this was donein many ways he was still a mystery to her.
Instead of teaching she worked the evening shift at a diner called Eights, a busy hangout on the outskirts of Edenton. The owner there, Ray Toler, was a sixty-something black man who'd run the place for thirty years. He and his wife had raised six kids, all of whom went to college. Copies of their diplomas hung along the back wall, and everyone who ate there knew about them. Ray made sure of that. He also liked to talk about Denise. She was the only one, he liked to say, who'd ever handed him a résumé when interviewing for the job.
Ray was a man who understood poverty, a man who understood kindness, a man who understood how hard it was for single mothers. "In the back of the building, there's a small room," he'd said when he hired her. "You can bring your son with you, as long as he doesn't get in the way." Tears formed in her eyes when he showed it to her. There were two cots, a night-light, a place where Kyle would be safe. The next evening Kyle went to bed in that small room as soon as she started on her shift; hours later she loaded him in the car and took him back home. Since then that routine hadn't changed.
She worked four nights a week, five hours a shift, earning barely enough to get by. She'd sold her Honda for an old but reliable Datsun two years ago, pocketing the difference. That money, along with everything else from her mother, had long since been spent. She'd become a master of budgeting, a master of cutting corners. She hadn't bought new clothes for herself since the Christmas before last; though her furniture was decent, they were remnants from another life. She didn't subscribe to magazines, she didn't have cable television, her stereo was an old boom box from college. The last movie she'd seen on the silver screen was Schindler's List. She seldom made long-distance phone calls to her friends. She had $238 in the bank. Her car was nineteen years old, with enough miles on the engine to have circled the world five times.
None of those things mattered, though. Only Kyle was important.
But never once had he told her that he loved her.
On those evenings she didn't work at the diner, Denise usually sat in the rocking chair on the porch out back, a book across her lap. She enjoyed reading outside, where the rise and fall of chirping crickets was somehow soothing in its monotony. Her home was surrounded by oak and cypress and mockernut hickory trees, all draped heavily in Spanish moss. Sometimes, when the moonlight slanted through them just right, shadows that looked like exotic animals splashed across the gravel walkway.
Copyright © 2000 by Nicholas Sparks Enterprises, Inc.
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