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The Last Song
Read by Pepper Binkley
Read by Scott Sowers
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Table of Contents
More Nicholas Sparks
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Six months earlier
Ronnie slouched in the front seat of the car, wondering why on earth her mom and dad hated her so much.
It was the only thing that could explain why she was here visiting her dad, in this godforsaken southern armpit of a place, instead of spending time with her friends back home in Manhattan.
No, scratch that. She wasn't just visiting her dad. Visiting implied a weekend or two, maybe even a week. She supposed she could live with a visit. But to stay until late August? Pretty much the entire summer? That was banishment, and for most of the nine hours it had taken them to drive down, she'd felt like a prisoner being transferred to a rural penitentiary. She couldn't believe her mom was actually going to make her go through with this.
Ronnie was so enveloped in misery, it took a second for her to recognize Mozart's Sonata no. 16 in C Major. It was one of the pieces she had performed at Carnegie Hall four years ago, and she knew her mom had put it on while Ronnie was sleeping. Too bad. Ronnie reached over to turn it off.
"Why'd you do that?" her mom said, frowning. "I like hearing you play."
"How about if I turn the volume down?"
"Just stop, Mom. Okay? I'm not in the mood."
Ronnie stared out the window, knowing full well that her mom's lips had just formed a tight seam. Her mom did that a lot these days. It was as if her lips were magnetized.
"I think I saw a pelican when we crossed the bridge to Wrightsville Beach," her mom commented with forced lightness.
"Gee, that's swell. Maybe you should call the Crocodile Hunter."
"He died," Jonah said, his voice floating up from the backseat, the sounds mingling with those from his Game Boy. Her ten-year-old pain-in-the-butt brother was addicted to the thing. "Don't you remember?" he went on. "It was really sad."
"Of course I remember."
"You didn't sound like you remembered."
"Well, I did."
"Then you shouldn't have said what you just said."
She didn't bother to respond a third time. Her brother always needed the last word. It drove her crazy.
"Were you able to get any sleep at all?" her mom asked.
"Until you hit that pothole. Thanks for that, by the way. My head practically went through the glass."
Her mom's gaze remained fixed on the road. "I'm glad to see your nap put you in a better mood."
Ronnie snapped her gum. Her mom hated that, which was the main reason she'd done it pretty much nonstop as they'd driven down I-95. The interstate, in her humble opinion, was just about the most boring stretch of roadway ever conceived. Unless someone was particularly fond of greasy fast food, disgusting rest-stop bathrooms, and zillions of pine trees, it could lull a person to sleep with its hypnotically ugly monotony.
She'd said those exact words to her mother in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, but Mom had ignored the comments every time. Aside from trying to make nice on the trip since it was the last time they'd see each other for a while, Mom wasn't one for conversation in the car. She wasn't all that comfortable driving, which wasn't surprising since they either rode the subways or took cabs when they needed to get somewhere. In the apartment, though… that was a different story. Mom had no qualms about getting into things there, and the building super had come by twice in the last couple of months to ask them to keep it down. Mom probably believed that the louder she yelled about Ronnie's grades, or Ronnie's friends, or the fact that Ronnie continually ignored her curfew, or the Incident—especially the Incident—the more likely it would be that Ronnie would care.
Okay, she wasn't the worst mom. She really wasn't. And when she was feeling generous, Ronnie might even admit that she was pretty good as far as moms went. It was just that her mom was stuck in some weird time warp in which kids never grew up, and Ronnie wished for the hundredth time that she'd been born in May instead of August. That was when she'd turn eighteen, and her mom wouldn't be able to force her to do anything. Legally, she'd be old enough to make her own decisions, and let's just say that coming down here wasn't on her to-do list.
But right now, Ronnie had no choice in the matter. Because she was still seventeen. Because of a trick of the calendar. Because Mom conceived three months earlier than she should have. What was that about? No matter how fiercely Ronnie had begged or complained or screamed or whined about the summer plans, it hadn't made the tiniest bit of difference. Ronnie and Jonah were spending the summer with their dad, and that was final. No if, ands, or buts about it, was the way her mom had phrased it. Ronnie had learned to despise that expression.
Just off the bridge, summer traffic had slowed the line of cars to a crawl. Off to the side, between the houses, Ronnie caught glimpses of the ocean. Yippee. Like she was supposed to care.
"Why again are you making us do this?" Ronnie groaned.
"We've already been through this," her mom answered. "You need to spend time with your dad. He misses you."
"But why all summer? Couldn't it just be for a couple of weeks?"
"You need more than a couple of weeks together. You haven't seen him in three years."
"That's not my fault. He's the one who left."
"Yes, but you haven't taken his calls. And every time he came to New York to see you and Jonah, you ignored him and hung out with your friends."
Ronnie snapped her gum again. From the corner of her eye, she saw her mother wince.
"I don't want to see or talk to him," Ronnie said.
"Just try to make the best of it, okay? Your father is a good man and he loves you."
"Is that why he walked out on us?"
Instead of answering, her mom glanced up into the rearview mirror.
"You've been looking forward to this, haven't you, Jonah?"
"Are you kidding? This is going to be great!"
"I'm glad you have a good attitude. Maybe you could teach your sister."
He snorted. "Yeah, right."
"I just don't see why I can't spend the summer with my friends," Ronnie whined, cutting back in. She wasn't done yet. Though she knew the odds were slim to none, she still harbored the fantasy that she could convince her mom to turn the car around.
"Don't you mean you'd rather spend all night at the clubs? I'm not naive, Ronnie. I know what goes on in those kinds of places."
"I don't do anything wrong, Mom."
"What about your grades? And your curfew? And—"
"Can we talk about something else?" Ronnie cut in. "Like why it's so imperative that I spend time with my dad?"
Her mother ignored her. Then again, Ronnie knew she had every reason to. She'd already answered the question a million times, even if Ronnie didn't want to accept it.
Traffic eventually started to move again, and the car moved forward for half a block before coming to another halt. Her mother rolled down the window and tried to peer around the cars in front of her.
"I wonder what's going on," she muttered. "It's really packed down here."
"It's the beach," Jonah volunteered. "It's always crowded at the beach."
"It's three o'clock on a Sunday. It shouldn't be this crowded."
Ronnie tucked her legs up, hating her life. Hating everything about this.
"Hey, Mom?" Jonah asked. "Does Dad know Ronnie was arrested?"
"Yeah. He knows," she answered.
"What's he going to do?"
This time, Ronnie answered. "He won't do anything. All he ever cared about was the piano."
Ronnie hated the piano and swore she'd never play again, a decision even some of her oldest friends thought was strange, since it had been a major part of her life for as long as she'd known them. Her dad, once a teacher at Juilliard, had been her teacher as well, and for a long time, she'd been consumed by the desire not only to play, but to compose original music with her father.
She was good, too. Very good, actually, and because of her father's connection to Juilliard, the administration and teachers there were well aware of her ability. Word slowly began to spread in the obscure "classical music is all-important" grapevine that constituted her father's life. A couple of articles in classical music magazines followed, and a moderately long piece in The New York Times that focused on the father-daughter connection came next, all of which eventually led to a coveted appearance in the Young Performers series at Carnegie Hall four years ago. That, she supposed, was the highlight of her career. And it was a highlight; she wasn't naive about what she'd accomplished. She knew how rare an opportunity like that was, but lately she'd found herself wondering whether the sacrifices had been worth it. No one besides her parents probably even remembered the performance, after all. Or even cared. Ronnie had learned that unless you had a popular video on YouTube or could perform shows in front of thousands, musical ability meant nothing.
Sometimes she wished her father had started her on the electric guitar. Or at the very least, singing lessons. What was she supposed to do with an ability to play the piano? Teach music at the local school? Or play in some hotel lobby while people were checking in? Or chase the hard life her father had? Look where the piano had gotten him. He'd ended up quitting Juilliard so he could hit the road as a concert pianist and found himself playing in rinky-dink venues to audiences that barely filled the first couple of rows. He traveled forty weeks a year, long enough to put a strain on the marriage. Next thing she knew, Mom was yelling all the time and Dad was retreating into his shell like he usually did, until one day he simply didn't return from an extended southern tour. As far as she knew, he wasn't working at all these days. He wasn't even giving private lessons.
How did that work out for you, Dad?
She shook her head. She really didn't want to be here. God knows she wanted nothing to do with any of this.
"Hey, Mom!" Jonah called out. He leaned forward. "What's over there? Is that a Ferris wheel?"
Her mom craned her neck, trying to see around the minivan in the lane beside her. "I think it is, honey," she answered. "There must be a carnival in town."
"Can we go? After we all have dinner together?"
"You'll have to ask your dad."
"Yeah, and maybe afterward, we'll all sit around the campfire and roast marshmallows," Ronnie interjected. "Like we're one big, happy family."
This time, both of them ignored her.
"Do you think they have other rides?" Jonah asked.
"I'm sure they do. And if your dad doesn't want to ride them, I'm sure your sister will go with you."
Ronnie sagged in her seat. It figured her mom would suggest something like that. The whole thing was too depressing to believe.
Steve Miller played the piano with keyed-up intensity, anticipating his children's arrival at any minute.
The piano was located in a small alcove off the small living room of the beachside bungalow he now called home. Behind him were items that represented his personal history. It wasn't much. Aside from the piano, Kim had been able to pack his belongings into a single box, and it had taken less than half an hour to put everything in place. There was a snapshot of him with his father and mother when he was young, another photo of him playing the piano as a teen. They were mounted between both of the degrees he'd received, one from Chapel Hill and the other from Boston University, and below it was a certificate of appreciation from Juilliard after he'd taught for fifteen years. Near the window were three framed schedules outlining his tour dates. Most important, though,were half a dozen photographs of Jonah and Ronnie, some tacked to the walls or framed and sitting atop the piano, and whenever he looked at them, he was reminded of the fact that despite his best intentions, nothing had turned out the way he'd expected.
The late afternoon sun was slanting through the windows, making the interior of the house stuffy, and Steve could feel beads of sweat beginning to form. Thankfully, the pain in his stomach had lessened since the morning, but he'd been nervous for days, and he knew it would come back. He'd always had a weak stomach; in his twenties, he'd had an ulcer and was hospitalized for diverticulitis; in his thirties, he'd had his appendix removed after it had burst while Kim was pregnant with Jonah. He ate Rolaids like candy, he'd been on Nexium for years, and though he knew he could probably eat better and exercise more, he doubted that either would have helped. Stomach problems ran in his family.
His father's death six years ago had changed him, and since the funeral, he'd felt as though he'd been on a count-down of sorts. In a way, he supposed he had. Five years ago, he'd quit his position at Juilliard, and a year after that, he'd decided to try his luck as a concert pianist. Three years ago, he and Kim decided to divorce; less than twelve months later, the tour dates began drying up, until they finally ended completely. Last year, he'd moved back here, to the town where he'd grown up, a place he never thought he'd see again. Now he was about to spend the summer with his children, and though he tried to imagine what the fall would bring once Ronnie and Jonah were back in New York, he knew only that leaves would yellow before turning to red and that in the mornings his breaths would come out in little puffs. He'd long since given up trying to predict the future.
This didn't bother him. He knew predictions were pointless, and besides, he could barely understand the past. These days, all he could say for sure was that he was ordinary in a world that loved the extraordinary, and the realization left him with a vague feeling of disappointment at the life he'd led. But what could he do? Unlike Kim, who'd been outgoing and gregarious, he'd always been more reticent and blended into crowds. Though he had certain talents as a musician and composer, he lacked the charisma or showmanship or whatever it was that made a performer stand out. At times, even he admitted that he'd been more an observer of the world than a participant in it, and in moments of painful honesty, he sometimes believed he was a failure in all that was important. He was forty-eight years old. His marriage had ended, his daughter avoided him, and his son was growing up without him. Thinking back, he knew he had no one to blame but himself, and more than anything, this was what he wanted to know: Was it still possible for someone like him to experience the presence of God?
Ten years ago, he could never have imagined wondering about such a thing. Two years, even. But middle age, he sometimes thought, had made him as reflective as a mirror. Though he'd once believed that the answer lay somehow in the music he created, he suspected now that he'd been mistaken. The more he thought about it, the more he'd come to realize that for him, music had always been a movement away from reality rather than a means of living in it more deeply. He might have experienced passion and catharsis in the works of Tchaikovsky or felt a sense of accomplishment when he'd written sonatas of his own, but he now knew that burying himself in music had less to do with God than a selfish desire to escape.
He now believed that the real answer lay somewhere in the nexus of love he felt for his children, in the ache he experienced when he woke in the quiet house and realized they weren't here. But even then, he knew there was something more.
And somehow, he hoped his children would help him find it.
A few minutes later, Steve noticed the sun reflecting off the windshield of a dusty station wagon outside. He and Kim had purchased it years ago for weekend outings to Costco and family getaways. He wondered in passing if she'd remembered to change the oil before she'd driven down, or even since he'd left. Probably not, he decided. Kim had never been good at things like that, which was why he'd always taken care of them.
But that part of his life was over now.
Steve rose from his seat, and by the time he stepped onto the porch, Jonah was already out of the car and rushing toward him. His hair hadn't been combed, his glasses were crooked, and his arms and legs were as skinny as pencils. Steve felt his throat tighten, reminded again of how much he'd missed in the past three years.
"Jonah!" Steve shouted back as he crossed the rocky sand that constituted his yard. When Jonah jumped into his arms, it was all he could do to remain upright.
"You've gotten so big," he said.
"And you've gotten smaller!" Jonah said. "You're skinny now."
Steve hugged his son tight before putting him down. "I'm glad you're here."
"I am, too. Mom and Ronnie fought the whole time."
"That's no fun."
"It's okay. I ignored it. Except when I egged them on."
"Ah," Steve responded.
Jonah pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "Why didn't Mom let us fly?"
"Did you ask her?"
"Maybe you should."
"It's not important. I was just wondering."
Steve smiled. He'd forgotten how talkative his son could be.
"Hey, is this your house?"
"This place is awesome!"
Steve wondered if Jonah was serious. The house was anything but awesome. The bungalow was easily the oldest property on Wrightsville Beach and sandwiched between two massive homes that had gone up within the last ten years, making it seem even more diminutive. The paint was peeling, the roof was missing numerous shingles, and the porch was rotting; it wouldn't surprise him if the next decent storm blew it over, which would no doubt please the neighbors. Since he'd moved in, neither family had ever spoken to him.
"You think so?" he said.
"Hello? It's right on the beach. What else could you want?" He motioned toward the ocean. "Can I go check it out?"
"Sure. But be careful. And stay behind the house. Don't wander off."
Steve watched him jog off before turning to see Kim approaching. Ronnie had stepped out of the car as well but was still lingering near it.
"Hi, Kim," he said.
"Steve." She leaned in to give him a brief hug. "You doing okay?" she asked. "You look thin."
Behind her, Steve noticed Ronnie slowly making her way toward them. He was struck by how much she'd changed since the last photo Kim had e-mailed. Gone was the all-American girl he remembered, and in her place was a young woman with a purple streak in her long brown hair, black fingernail polish, and dark clothing. Despite the obvious signs of teenage rebellion, he thought again how much she resembled her mother. Good thing, too. She was, he thought, as lovely as ever.
He cleared his throat. "Hi, sweetie. It's good to see you."
When Ronnie didn't answer, Kim scowled at her. "Don't be rude. Your father's talking to you. Say something."
Ronnie crossed her arms. "All right. How about this? I'm not going to play the piano for you."
"Ronnie!" Steve could hear Kim's exasperation.
"What?" She tossed her head. "I thought I'd get that out of the way early."
Before Kim could respond, Steve shook his head. The last thing he wanted was an argument. "It's okay, Kim."
"Yeah, Mom. It's okay," Ronnie said, pouncing. "I need to stretch my legs. I'm going for a walk."
As she stomped away, Steve watched Kim struggle with the impulse to call her back. In the end, though, she said nothing.
"Long drive?" he asked, trying to lighten the mood.
"You can't even imagine it."
He smiled, thinking that for just an instant, it was easy to imagine they were still married, both of them on the same team, both of them still in love.
Except, of course, that they weren't.
After unloading the bags, Steve went to the kitchen, where he tapped ice cubes from the old-fashioned tray and dropped them into the mismatched glasses that had come with the place.
Behind him, he heard Kim enter the kitchen. He reached for a pitcher of sweet tea, poured two glasses, and handed one to her. Outside, Jonah was alternately chasing, and being chased by, the waves as seagulls fluttered overhead.
"It looks like Jonah's having fun," he said.
Kim took a step toward the window. "He's been excited about coming for weeks." She hesitated. "He's missed you."
"I've missed him."
"I know," she said. She took a drink of her tea before glancing around the kitchen. "So this is the place, huh? It's got… character."
"By character, I assume you've noticed the leaky roof and lack of air-conditioning."
Kim flashed a brief smile, caught.
"I know it's not much. But it's quiet and I can watch the sun come up."
"And the church is letting you stay here for free?"
Steve nodded. "It belonged to Carson Johnson. He was a local artist, and when he passed away, he left the house to the church. Pastor Harris is letting me stay until they're ready to sell."
"So what's it like living back home? I mean, your parents used to live, what? Three blocks from here?"
Seven, actually. Close. "It's all right." He shrugged.
"It's so crowded now. The place has really changed since the last time I was here."
"Everything changes," he said. He leaned against the counter, crossing one leg over the other. "So when's the big day?" he asked, changing the subject. "For you and Brian?"
"Steve… about that."
"It's okay," he said, raising a hand. "I'm glad you found someone."
Kim stared at him, clearly wondering whether to accept his words at face value or plunge into sensitive territory.
"In January," she finally said. "And I want you to know that with the kids… Brian doesn't pretend to be someone he isn't. You'd like him."
"I'm sure I would," he said, taking a sip of his tea. He set the glass back down. "How do the kids feel about him?"
"Jonah seems to like him, but Jonah likes everyone."
"She gets along with him about as well as she gets along with you."
He laughed before noting her worried expression. "How's she really doing?"
"I don't know." She sighed. "And I don't think she does, either. She's in this dark, moody phase. She ignores her curfew, and half the time I can't get more than a 'Whatever' when I try to talk to her. I try to write it off as typical teenage stuff, because I remember what it was like… but…" She shook her head. "You saw the way she was dressed, right? And her hair and that god-awful mascara?"
"It could be worse."
Kim opened her mouth to say something, but when nothing came out, Steve knew he was right. Whatever stage she was going through, whatever Kim's fears, Ronnie was still Ronnie.
"I guess," she conceded, before shaking her head. "No, I know you're right. It's just been so difficult with her lately. There are times she's still as sweet as ever. Like with Jonah. Even though they fight like cats and dogs, she still brings him to the park every weekend. And when he was having trouble in math, she tutored him every night. Which is strange, because she's barely passing any of her classes. And I haven't told you this, but I made her take the SATs in February. She missed every single question. Do you know how smart you have to be to miss every single question?"
When Steve laughed, Kim frowned. "It's not funny."
"It's kind of funny."
"You haven't had to deal with her these last three years."
He paused, chastened. "You're right. I'm sorry." He reached for his glass again. "What did the judge say about her shoplifting?"
"Just what I told you on the phone," she said with a resigned expression. "If she doesn't get into any more trouble, it'll be expunged from her record. If she does it again, though…" She trailed off.
"You're worried about this," he started.
Kim turned away. "It's not the first time, which is the problem," she confessed. "She admitted to stealing the bracelet last year, but this time, she said she was buying a bunch of stuff at the drugstore and couldn't hold it all, so she tucked the lipstick in her pocket. She paid for everything else, and when you see the video, it seems to be an honest mistake, but…"
"But you're not sure."
When Kim didn't answer, Steve shook his head. "She's not on her way to being profiled on America's Most Wanted. She made a mistake. And she's always had a good heart."
"That doesn't mean she's telling the truth now."
"And it doesn't mean she lied, either."
"So you believe her?" Her expression was a mixture of hope and skepticism.
He sifted through his feelings about the incident, as he had a dozen times since Kim had first told him. "Yeah," he said. "I believe her."
"Because she's a good kid."
"How do you know?" she demanded. For the first time, she sounded angry. "The last time you spent any time with her, she was finishing middle school." She turned away from him then, crossing her arms as she gazed out the window. Her voice was bitter when she went on. "You could have come back, you know. You could have taught in New York again. You didn't have to travel around the country, you didn't have to move here… you could have stayed part of their lives."
Her words stung him, and he knew she was right. But it hadn't been that simple, for reasons they both understood, though neither would acknowledge them.
The charged silence passed when Steve eventually cleared his throat. "I was just trying to say that Ronnie knows right from wrong. As much as she asserts her independence, I still believe she's the same person she always was. In the ways that really matter, she hasn't changed."
Before Kim could figure out how or if she should respond to his comment, Jonah burst through the front door, his cheeks flushed.
"Dad! I found a really cool workshop! C'mon! I want to show you!"
Kim raised an eyebrow.
"It's out back," Steve said. "Do you want to see it?"
"It's awesome, Mom!"
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