Read by Sean Cameron Michael
Read by Vanessa Johansson
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There are stories that rise from mysterious, unknown places, and others that are discovered, a gift from someone else. This story is one of the latter. On a cool and blustery day in the late spring of 2016, I drove to Sunset Beach, North Carolina, one of many small islands between Wilmington and the South Carolina border. I parked my truck near the pier and hiked down the beach, heading for Bird Island, an uninhabited coastal preserve. Locals had told me there was something I should see; perhaps, they'd even suggested, the site would end up in one of my novels. They told me to keep my eye out for an American flag; when I spotted it in the distance, I'd know I was getting close.
Not long after the flag came into view, I kept my eyes peeled. I was to look for a mailbox called Kindred Spirit. The mailbox—planted on a pole of aging driftwood near a saw grass–speckled dune—has been around since 1983 and belongs to no one and everyone. Anyone can leave a letter or postcard; any passerby can read whatever has been placed inside. Thousands of people do so every year. Over time, Kindred Spirit has been a repository of hopes and dreams in written form…and always, there are love stories to be found.
The beach was deserted. As I approached the isolated mailbox on its lonely stretch of shoreline, I could just make out a wooden bench beside it. It was the perfect resting place, an outpost of reflection.
Reaching inside the mailbox, I found two postcards, several previously opened letters, a recipe for Brunswick stew, a journal that appeared to have been written in German, and a thick manila envelope. There were pens, a pad of unused paper, and envelopes—presumably for anyone who was inspired to add their own story to the contents. Taking a seat on the bench, I perused the postcards and the recipe before turning to the letters. Almost immediately, I noticed that no one used last names. Some of the letters had first names, others had only initials, and still others were completely anonymous, which only added to the sense of mystery.
But anonymity seemed to allow for candid reflection. I read about a woman who, in the aftermath of a struggle with cancer, had met the man of her dreams at a Christian bookstore, but worried that she wasn't good enough for him. I read about a child who hoped to one day become an astronaut. There was a letter from a young man who planned to propose to his sweetheart in a hot air balloon, and still another from a man who wanted to ask his neighbor on a date but feared rejection. There was a letter from someone recently released from prison who wanted nothing more than to start his life over. The final missive was from a man whose dog, Teddy, had recently been put to sleep. The man was still grieving, and after finishing the letter, I studied the photograph that had been tucked inside the envelope, showing a black Labrador retriever with friendly eyes and a graying muzzle. The man had signed his initials A.K., and I found myself hoping he would find a way to fill the void that Teddy's absence had left behind.
By then, the breeze was steady and the clouds had begun to darken. A storm was rolling in. I returned the recipe, postcards, and letters to the mailbox and debated opening the manila envelope. The thickness indicated a substantial number of pages, and the last thing I wanted was to get caught in the rain as I trekked back to my truck. Flipping over the envelope as I debated, I saw that someone had printed on the back The Most Amazing Story Ever!
A plea for recognition? A challenge? Written by the author, or by someone who'd examined the contents? I wasn't sure, but how could I resist?
I opened the clasp. Inside the envelope were a dozen or so pages, photocopies of three letters, and some photocopied drawings of a man and woman who clearly looked to be in love with each other. I set those aside and reached for the story. The first line made me pause:
The destiny that matters most in anyone's life is the one concerning love.
The tone was unlike the previous letters, promising something grand, it seemed. I settled in to read. After a page or so, my curiosity became interest; after a few more pages, I couldn't put the story aside. Over the next half hour, I laughed and felt my throat tighten; I ignored the uptick in the breeze and clouds that were turning the color of charcoal. Thunder and flickers of lightning were reaching the distant edge of the island when I read the final words with a sense of wonder.
I should have left then. I could see sheets of rain marching across the waves toward me, but instead, I read the story a second time. On that reading, I was able to hear the voices of the characters with utter clarity. By the time I read the letters and examined the drawings, I could feel the idea taking shape that I might somehow find the writer and broach the possibility of turning his story into a book.
But finding that person wouldn't be easy. Most of the events had taken place long in the past—more than a quarter century earlier—and instead of names, there were only single initials. Even in the letters, the original names had been whited out before the pages were copied. There was nothing to indicate who the writer or artist might have been.
A few clues remained, however. In the part of the story dating back to 1990, there was mention of a restaurant with a deck out back and an indoor fireplace, where a cannonball allegedly salvaged from one of Blackbeard's ships sat atop the mantel. There was also reference to a cottage on an island off the North Carolina coast, within walking distance of the restaurant. And in what seemed to be the most recently written pages, the writer spoke of a construction project currently under way at a beach house, on a different island altogether. I had no idea whether the project was now finished, but I had to start somewhere. Though years had passed, I hoped the drawings would eventually help me identify the subjects. And, of course, there was also the Kindred Spirit mailbox on the beach where I sat, which played a pivotal role in the story.
By then, the sky was positively threatening and I knew I was out of time. Sliding the pages back into the manila envelope, I returned it to the mailbox and hurried to my truck. I barely beat the downpour. Had I waited another few minutes, I would have been drenched, and despite having my windshield wipers on high, I could barely see through the glass. I drove home, made myself a late lunch, and stared out the window, continuing to think about the couple that I'd read about on the pages. By evening, I knew that I wanted to go back to Kindred Spirit and examine the story again, but weather and some business travel prevented me from returning for nearly a week.
When I finally made it back, the other letters, the recipe, and the journal were there, but the manila envelope was gone. I wondered what had become of it. I was curious as to whether a stranger had been as moved by the pages as I'd been and had taken them, or if perhaps there was some sort of caretaker who occasionally purged the mailbox. Mainly, I wondered whether the author had had second thoughts about revealing the story and come to retrieve it himself.
It made me want to talk to the writer even more, but family and work kept me busy for another month, and it wasn't until June that I found time to begin my quest. I won't bore you with all the details regarding my search—it took the better part of a week, countless phone calls, visits to various chambers of commerce and county offices where building permits were recorded, and hundreds of miles on the truck. Since the first part of the story took place decades ago, some of the reference points had long since disappeared. I managed to track down the location of the restaurant—it was now a chic seafood bistro with white tablecloths—and used that as a starting point for my exploratory excursions, in order to get a sense of the area. After that, following the trail of building permits, I visited one island after the next, and on one of my many walks up and down the beach, I eventually came across the sound of hammering and a power drill—not uncommon for salted and weather-beaten homes along the coast. When I saw an older man working on a ramp that led from the top of the dune to the beach, though, I felt a sudden jolt. I remembered the drawings, and even from a distance suspected that I had found one of the characters I had read about.
Walking over, I introduced myself. Up close, I became even more certain it was him. I noted the quiet intensity I'd read about and the same observant blue eyes referenced in one of the letters. Doing the math, I figured him to be in his late sixties, which was the right age. After a bit of small talk, I asked him point-blank whether he'd written the story that had ended up in Kindred Spirit. In response, he deliberately turned his gaze toward the ocean, saying nothing for perhaps a minute. When he turned to face me again, he said that he would answer my questions the following afternoon, but only if I was willing to lend him a hand on his construction project.
I showed up with a tool belt early the following morning, but the tools proved unnecessary. Instead, he had me haul plywood, two-by-fours, and pressure-treated lumber from the front of the house to the back, up over the sandy dune, and onto the beach. The pile of lumber was enormous, and the sand made every load seem twice as heavy. It took me most of the day, and aside from telling me where to place the lumber, he didn't speak to me at all. He spent the day drilling and nailing and working beneath a searing early-summer sun, more interested in the quality of his work than my presence.
Shortly after I'd finished hauling the last load, he motioned for me to take a seat on the dune and opened a cooler. Filling a pair of plastic cups from a thermos inside, he handed me a cup of iced tea.
"Yeah," he finally offered. "I wrote it."
"Is it true?"
He squinted, as if evaluating me.
"Some of it," he admitted, in the accent I'd heard described in the pages. "Some might dispute the facts, but memories aren't always about facts."
I told him that I thought it might make for a fascinating book and launched into a series of passionate arguments. He listened in silence, his expression unreadable. For some reason, I felt anxious, almost desperate to persuade him. After an uncomfortable silence during which he seemed to be weighing my proposition, he finally spoke: He was willing to discuss the idea further, and perhaps even agree to my request, but only on the condition that he be the first to read the story. And if he didn't like it, he wanted me to bury the pages. I hedged. Writing a book takes months, even years, of effort—but he held firm. In the end, I agreed. Truth be told, I understood his reasoning. If our positions had been reversed, I would have asked the same of him.
We went to the cottage then. I asked questions and received answers. I was provided again with a copy of the story, and I was shown the original drawings and letters that enlivened the past even more.
The conversation rolled on. He told the story well and saved the best for last. As evening fell, he showed me a remarkable item—a labor of love—that enabled me to visualize the events with detail and clarity, as if I'd been a witness to all that had happened. I also began to see how the words would appear on the page, as if the story were writing itself and my role was simply to transcribe it.
Before I left, he requested that real names not be used. He had no desire for fame—he considered himself a private person—but more than that, he knew that the story had the potential to open old, and new, wounds. The events, after all, hadn't taken place in isolation. There were living people involved, some of whom might be upset by the revelations. I have honored his request because I believe that the story has larger value and meaning: the power to remind us that there are times when destiny and love collide.
I began working on the novel soon after that first evening we spent together. In the year that followed, whenever I had questions, I called or visited. I toured the locations, or at least those that hadn't been lost to history. I went through newspaper archives and examined photographs taken more than twenty-five years earlier. To flesh out even more details, I spent a week at a bed and breakfast in a small coastal town in eastern North Carolina and traveled as far as Africa. I was fortunate in that time seems to move more slowly in both of those regions; there were moments when I felt as if I had actually journeyed deep into the past.
My trip to Zimbabwe was especially helpful. I'd never been to that particular country and was overwhelmed by the spectacular wildlife. The country had once been called the breadbasket of Africa, but by the time of my visit, much of the agricultural infrastructure had decayed and the economy had collapsed for largely political reasons. I walked among crumbling farmhouses and fallow fields, dependent on my imagination as to how verdant the land had been when the story first began. I also spent three weeks on various safaris, absorbing everything around me. I spoke to guides and scouts and spotters, discussing their training and their daily lives; I speculated on how challenging it must be for them to maintain families, since they spend most of their time in the bush. I confess, I found Africa utterly seductive. Since those trips, I've often felt the urge to return, and I know I will before long.
In spite of all the research, there's much that remains unknown. Twenty-seven years is a long period of time, and to re-create verbatim an ancient conversation between two people is impossible. Nor is it possible to recall with accuracy each and every step a person takes, or the position of the clouds in the sky, or the rhythm of the waves as they roll up on the shore. What I can say is that what follows next is the best I can possibly do under such constraints. Since I made further alterations for the purposes of privacy, I'm comfortable describing this book as a novel and not a work of nonfiction.
The genesis, research, and creation of this book has been one of the more memorable experiences of my life. In some ways, it's transformed the way I think about love. I suspect that most people harbor a lingering sense of What if I'd followed my heart?, and there's no way to ever really know the answer. A life, after all, is simply a series of little lives, each of them lived one day at a time, and every single one of those days has choices and consequences. Piece by piece, those decisions help to form the people we become. I've captured some fragments to the best of my ability, but who is to say that the picture I've assembled is a true portrait of who the couple really was?
There will always be doubters when it comes to love. Falling in love is the easy part; making that love last amid life's varied challenges is an elusive dream for many. But if you read this story with the same sense of wonder that I felt when writing it, then perhaps your faith in the uncanny force that love can exert on people's lives will be renewed. You might even find your way to Kindred Spirit one day, with a story of your own to tell…one that has the power to change someone else's life in ways you never imagined possible.
September 2, 2017
On the morning of September 9, 1990, Tru Walls stepped outside and surveyed a morning sky that was the color of fire near the horizon. The earth was cracked beneath his feet and the air was dry; it hadn't rained in more than two months. Dust clung to his boots as he made his way to the pickup he'd owned for more than twenty years. Like his footwear, the truck was covered in dust, both inside and out. Beyond a fence topped with electric wire, an elephant pulled branches from a tree that had toppled earlier that morning. Tru paid it no attention. It was part of the landscape of his birth—his ancestors had emigrated from England more than a century earlier—and he was no more startled than a fisherman spotting a shark as the daily catch was pulled in. He was lean, with dark hair and squint lines at the corners of his eyes earned by a life spent in the sun; at forty-two, he sometimes wondered whether he'd chosen to live in the bush or the bush had chosen him.
The camp was quiet; the other guides—including Romy, his best friend—had left earlier that morning for the main lodge, where they would ferry guests from around the world into the bush. Tru had worked at the lodge in Hwange National Park for the past ten years; prior to that, his existence had been more nomadic, with changes in lodges every couple of years as he'd gained more experience. As a rule, he'd avoided only those lodges that allowed hunting, something his grandfather wouldn't understand. His grandfather—who was referred to by everyone as the Colonel, though he never served in the military—claimed to have killed more than three hundred lions and cheetahs in his lifetime while protecting livestock on the massive family farm near Harare where Tru had been raised; his stepfather and half brothers were steadily making progress toward that same number. In addition to cattle, Tru's family cultivated various crops, harvesting more tobacco and tomatoes than any other farm in the country. Coffee, too. His great-grandfather had worked with the legendary Cecil Rhodes—mining magnate, politician, and emblem of British imperialism—accumulating land, money, and power in the late nineteenth century, before Tru's grandfather took over.
His grandfather, the Colonel, inherited a thriving enterprise from his father, but after World War II, the business expanded exponentially, making the Walls family one of the wealthiest in the country. The Colonel had never understood Tru's desire to escape what was by then a bona fide business empire and life of considerable luxury. Before he'd died—Tru had been twenty-six at the time—he'd once visited a reserve where Tru had been working. Though he had slept at the main lodge rather than the guide camp, seeing Tru's living quarters had been a shock to the old man. He'd surveyed a dwelling that he probably regarded as little better than a shack, without insulation or telephones. A kerosene lantern provided lighting, and a small communal generator powered a miniature refrigerator. It was a far cry from the home where Tru had been raised, but the austere surroundings were all Tru needed, especially as evening descended and an ocean of stars appeared overhead. In fact, they were a step up from a few of the previous camps where he'd worked; in two of those, he'd slept in a tent. Here, at least, there was running water and a shower, which he considered something of a luxury, even if they were in a communal bathroom.
On this morning, Tru carried his guitar in its battered case; a lunch box and thermos; a handful of drawings he'd made for his son, Andrew; and a knapsack containing a few days' worth of clothing, toiletries, drawing pads, colored and charcoal pencils, and his passport. Though he'd be gone for about a week, he figured it was all he would need.
His truck was parked beneath a baobab tree. A few of his fellow guides were fond of the dry, pulpy fruit. They'd mix it into their porridge in the morning, but Tru had never developed a taste for it. Tossing his knapsack onto the front seat, he checked the bed of the truck, making sure there was nothing in the back that could be stolen. Though he'd leave the truck at the family farm, there were more than three hundred field workers there, all of whom made very little money. Good tools were prone to vanishing into the ether, even under the watchful eyes of his family.
He slid behind the wheel and slipped on his sunglasses. Before turning the key, he made sure he hadn't forgotten anything. There wasn't much; in addition to the knapsack and guitar, he carried with him the letter and photograph he'd received from America, along with his plane tickets and his wallet. In the rack behind him was a loaded rifle in case his truck broke down and he found himself wandering in the bush, which remained one of the most dangerous places in the world, especially at night, even for someone as experienced as he. In the glove compartment were a compass and a flashlight. He made sure his tent was beneath the seat, again in case of emergency. It was compact enough to fit in the bed of his truck, and though it wouldn't do much to keep predators at bay, it was better than sleeping on the ground. All right, then, he thought. He was as ready as he'd ever be.
The day was already growing warm and the interior of the truck was even hotter. He'd avail himself of the "two-twenty" air-conditioning: two windows down at a speed of twenty miles an hour. It wouldn't help much, but he'd long since grown used to the heat. He rolled up the sleeves of his tan button-up shirt. He wore his usual trekking pants, which had grown soft and comfortable over the years. The guests hanging around the swimming pool back at the main lodge would likely be in bathing suits and flip-flops, but he'd never been comfortable in that attire. The boots and canvas pants had once saved his life when he'd crossed paths with an angry black mamba; if he hadn't had the proper clothing, the venom would have killed him in less than thirty minutes.
He glanced at his watch. It was a little after seven, and he had a long couple of days ahead. Cranking the engine, he backed out before heading toward the gate. He hopped out, pulled the gate open, rolled the truck through, and then closed the gate again. The last thing the other guides needed was to return to camp and find that a pride of lions had settled in. It had happened before—not at this particular camp but at another where he'd worked, in the southeastern part of the country. That had been a chaotic day. No one had been quite sure what to do other than bide their time until the lions figured out how long they intended to stay. Fortunately, the lions had vacated the camp to go on the hunt later in the afternoon, but ever since then, Tru made a point to check the gates, even when he wasn't driving. Some of the guides were new, and he didn't want to take any chances.
Shifting the truck into gear, he settled in, trying to make the ride as smooth as possible. The first hundred miles were on rutted gravel roads pocked with potholes, first on the reserve, then winding past a number of small villages. That part would take until the early afternoon, but he was used to the drive, and he allowed his mind to wander as he took in the world he called home.
The sun glinted through wispy clouds that trailed over the tree line, illuminating a lilac-breasted roller as it broke free from the tree branches on his left. Two warthogs crossed the road ahead of him, trotting past a family of baboons. He'd seen those animals thousands of times, but he still marveled at how they could survive when surrounded by so many predators. Nature had its own insurance policy, he knew. Animals that were low on the food chain had more young; female zebras, for instance, were pregnant for all but nine or ten days a year. It was estimated that female lions, on the other hand, had to mate more than a thousand times for every cub that reached its first birthday. It was evolutionary balance at its finest, and though he witnessed it daily, it still struck him as extraordinary.
Often, guests would ask him about the most exciting things he'd seen while guiding. He'd recount what it was like to be charged by a black rhino, or how he'd once witnessed a giraffe bucking wildly until finally giving birth in an explosive discharge that had surprised him in its violence. He'd seen a jaguar cub dragging a warthog nearly twice its size high into a tree, only inches ahead of a pack of snarling hyenas who'd caught the scent of the kill. One time, he'd followed a wild dog that, abandoned by its own kind, had bonded with a pack of jackals—the same pack it used to hunt. The stories were endless.
Was it possible, he wondered, to experience the same game drive twice? The answer was both yes and no. A person could go to the same lodge, work with the same guide, leave at the same time, and drive the same roads in exactly the same weather in the same season, but always, the animals were in different places, doing different things. They moved to and from watering holes, watching and listening, eating and sleeping and mating, all of them simply trying to survive another day.
Off to the side, he saw a herd of impalas. Guides would joke that those antelopes were the McDonald's of the bush, fast food in abundance. They were part of every predator's diet, and guests usually grew tired of photographing them after a single game drive. Tru, however, slowed the truck, watching as one after another made an impossibly high and graceful leap over a fallen tree, as if choreographed. In their own way, he thought, they were as special as the big five—lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and water buffalo—or even the big seven, which included cheetahs and hyenas. Those were the animals that guests most wanted to see, the game that inspired the most excitement. The thing was, spotting lions wasn't particularly difficult, at least when the sun was shining. Lions slept eighteen to twenty hours a day, and they could usually be found resting in the shade. Spotting a moving lion, on the other hand, was rare, except at night. In the past, he'd worked at lodges that offered evening game drives. A few had been hair-raising, and many had been blinding, the dust from a hundred buffalo or wildebeest or zebra swirling as they'd stampeded from lions. It had been impossible to see more than inches in any direction, forcing Tru to stop the jeep. Twice, he'd realized that his vehicle was suddenly sandwiched between the pride of lions and whatever they'd been hunting, sending his adrenaline skyrocketing.
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