Authors: Nicholas Sparks
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, andincidents are the product of the author’s imagination or areused fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events,locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 1999 by Nicholas Sparks Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Hachette Book Group, 237 Park Avenue,
New York, NY 10017
Visit our Web site at
A Time Warner Company
The “Warner Books” name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
First eBook Edition: October 1999
Book design by Giorgetta Bell McRee
Also by Nicholas Sparks
Message in a Bottle
For my parents, with love and memories.
Patrick Michael Sparks (1942–1996)
Jill Emma Marie Sparks (1942–1989)
And for my siblings, with all my heart and soul
As always, I have to thank my wife, Cathy. I was joyous when she accepted my proposal, I’m even more joyous that after ten years, I still feel the same about her. Thank you for the best years of my life.
I’m thankful for Miles and Ryan, my sons, who occupy a special place in my heart. I love you both. To them, I’m just “Dad.”
Thanks also to Theresa Park, my agent at Sanford Greenburger Associates, my friend and confidante. Words are never enough to express how much you’ve done for me.
Jamie Raab, my editor at Warner Books, also deserves my heartfelt gratitude for the past four years. You’re the best.
Then there are others who’ve supported me every step of the way: Larry Kirshbaum, Maureen Egen, John Aherne, Dan Mandel, Howie Sanders, Richard Green, Scott Schwimer, Lynn Harris, Mark Johnson, and Denise Di Novi—I’m truly blessed to have been able to work with you all.
When I was seventeen, my life changed forever.
I know that there are people who wonder about me when I say this. They look at me strangely as if trying to fathom what could have happened back then, though I seldom bother to explain. Because I’ve lived here for most of my life, I don’t feel that I have to unless it’s on my terms, and that would take more time than most people are willing to give me. My story can’t be summed up in two or three sentences; it can’t be packaged into something neat and simple that people would immediately understand. Despite the passage of forty years, the people still living here who knew me that year accept my lack of explanation without question. My story in some ways is their story because it was something that all of us lived through.
It was I, however, who was closest to it.
I’m fifty-seven years old, but even now I can remember everything from that year, down to the smallest details. I relive that year often in my mind, bringing it back to life, and I realize that when I do, I always feel a strange combination of sadness and joy. There are moments when I wish I could roll back the clock and take all the sadness away, but I have the feeling that if I did, the joy would be gone as well. So I take the memories as they come, accepting them all, letting them guide me whenever I can. This happens more often than I let on.
It is April 12, in the last year before the millennium, and as I leave my house, I glance around. The sky is overcast and gray, but as I move down the street, I notice that the dog-woods and azaleas are blooming. I zip my jacket just a little. The temperature is cool, though I know it’s only a matter of weeks before it will settle in to something comfortable and the gray skies give way to the kind of days that make North Carolina one of the most beautiful places in the world.
With a sigh, I feel it all coming back to me. I close my eyes and the years begin to move in reverse, slowly ticking backward, like the hands of a clock rotating in the wrong direction. As if through someone else’s eyes, I watch myself grow younger; I see my hair changing from gray to brown, I feel the wrinkles around my eyes begin to smooth, my arms and legs grow sinewy. Lessons I’ve learned with age grow dimmer, and my innocence returns as that eventful year approaches.
Then, like me, the world begins to change: roads narrow and some become gravel, suburban sprawl has been replaced with farmland, downtown streets teem with people, looking in windows as they pass Sweeney’s bakery and Palka’s meat shop. Men wear hats, women wear dresses. At the courthouse up the street, the bell tower rings. . . .
I open my eyes and pause. I am standing outside the Baptist church, and when I stare at the gable, I know exactly who I am.
My name is Landon Carter, and I’m seventeen years old.
This is my story; I promise to leave nothing out.
First you will smile, and then you will cry— don’t say you haven’t been warned.
n 1958, Beaufort, North Carolina, which is located on the coast near Morehead City, was a place like many other small southern towns. It was the kind of place where the humidity rose so high in the summer that walking out to get the mail made a person feel as if he needed a shower, and kids walked around barefoot from April through October beneath oak trees draped in Spanish moss. People waved from their cars whenever they saw someone on the street whether they knew him or not, and the air smelled of pine, salt, and sea, a scent unique to the Carolinas. For many of the people there, fishing in the Pamlico Sound or crabbing in the Neuse River was a way of life, and boats were moored wherever you saw the Intracoastal Waterway. Only three channels came in on the television, though television was never important to those of us who grew up there. Instead our lives were centered around the churches, of which there were eighteen within the town limits alone. They went by names like the Fellowship Hall Christian Church, the Church of the Forgiven People, the Church of Sunday Atonement, and then, of course, there were the Baptist churches. When I was growing up, it was far and away the most popular denomination around, and there were Baptist churches on practically every corner of town, though each considered itself superior to the others. There were Baptist churches of every type— Freewill Baptists, Southern Baptists, Congregational Baptists, Missionary Baptists, Independent Baptists . . . well, you get the picture.
Back then, the big event of the year was sponsored by the Baptist church downtown— Southern, if you really want to know—in conjunction with the local high school. Every year they put on their Christmas pageant at the Beaufort Playhouse, which was actually a play that had been written by Hegbert Sullivan, a minister who’d been with the church since Moses parted the Red Sea. Okay, maybe he wasn’t that old, but he was old enough that you could almost see through the guy’s skin. It was sort of clammy all the time, and translucent—kids would swear they actually saw the blood flowing through his veins—and his hair was as white as those bunnies you see in pet stores around Easter.
Anyway, he wrote this play called
The Christmas Angel,
because he didn’t want to keep on performing that old Charles Dickens classic
A Christmas Carol.
In his mind Scrooge was a heathen, who came to his redemption only because he saw ghosts, not angels—and who was to say whether they’d been sent by God, anyway? And who was to say he wouldn’t revert to his sinful ways if they hadn’t been sent directly from heaven? The play didn’t exactly tell you in the end—it sort of plays into faith and all— but Hegbert didn’t trust ghosts if they weren’t actually sent by God, which wasn’t explained in plain language, and this was his big problem with it. A few years back he’d changed the end of the play—sort of followed it up with his own version, complete with old man Scrooge becoming a preacher and all, heading off to Jerusalem to find the place where Jesus once taught the scribes. It didn’t fly too well—not even to the congregation, who sat in the audience staring wideeyed at the spectacle—and the newspaper said things like “Though it was certainly interesting, it wasn’t exactly the play we’ve all come to know and love. . . .”
So Hegbert decided to try his hand at writing his own play. He’d written his own sermons his whole life, and some of them, we had to admit, were actually interesting, especially when he talked about the “wrath of God coming down on the fornicators” and all that good stuff. That really got his blood boiling, I’ll tell you, when he talked about the fornicators. That was his real hot spot. When we were younger, my friends and I would hide behind the trees and shout, “Hegbert is a fornicator!” when we saw him walking down the street, and we’d giggle like idiots, like we were the wittiest creatures ever to inhabit the planet.
Old Hegbert, he’d stop dead in his tracks and his ears would perk up—I swear to God, they actually moved—and he’d turn this bright shade of red, like he’d just drunk gasoline, and the big green veins in his neck would start sticking out all over, like those maps of the Amazon River that you see in
He’d peer from side to side, his eyes narrowing into slits as he searched for us, and then, just as suddenly, he’d start to go pale again, back to that fishy skin, right before our eyes. Boy, it was something to watch, that’s for sure.
So we’d be hiding behind a tree and Hegbert (what kind of parents name their kid Hegbert, anyway?) would stand there waiting for us to give ourselves up, as if he thought we’d be that stupid. We’d put our hands over our mouths to keep from laughing out loud, but somehow he’d always zero in on us. He’d be turning from side to side, and then he’d stop, those beady eyes coming right at us, right through the tree. “I know who you are, Landon Carter,” he’d say, “and the Lord knows, too.” He’d let that sink in for a minute or so, and then he’d finally head off again, and during the sermon that weekend he’d stare right at us and say something like “God is merciful to children, but the children must be worthy as well.” And we’d sort of lower ourselves in the seats, not from embarrassment, but to hide a new round of giggles. Hegbert didn’t understand us at all, which was really sort of strange, being that he had a kid and all. But then again, she was a girl. More on that, though, later.
Anyway, like I said, Hegbert wrote
The Christmas Angel
one year and decided to put on
play instead. The play itself wasn’t bad, actually, which surprised everyone the first year it was performed. It’s basically the story of a man who had lost his wife a few years back. This guy, Tom Thornton, used to be real religious, but he had a crisis of faith after his wife died during childbirth. He’s raising this little girl all on his own, but he hasn’t been the greatest father, and what the little girl really wants for Christmas is a special music box with an angel engraved on top, a picture of which she’d cut out from an old catalog. The guy searches long and hard to find the gift, but he can’t find it anywhere. So it’s Christmas Eve and he’s still searching, and while he’s out looking through the stores, he comes across a strange woman he’s never seen before, and she promises to help him find the gift for his daughter. First, though, they help this homeless person (back then they were called bums, by the way), then they stop at an orphanage to see some kids, then visit a lonely old woman who just wanted some company on Christmas Eve. At this point the mysterious woman asks Tom Thornton what he wants for Christmas, and he says that he wants his wife back. She brings him to the city fountain and tells him to look in the water and he’ll find what he’s looking for. When he looks in the water, he sees the face of his little girl, and he breaks down and cries right there. While he’s sobbing, the mysterious lady runs off, and Tom Thornton searches but can’t find her anywhere. Eventually he heads home, the lessons from the evening playing in his mind. He walks into his little girl’s room, and her sleeping figure makes him realize that she’s all he has left of his wife, and he starts to cry again because he knows he hasn’t been a good enough father to her. The next morning, magically, the music box is underneath the tree, and the angel that’s engraved on it looks exactly like the woman he’d seen the night before.
So it wasn’t that bad, really. If truth be told, people cried buckets whenever they saw it. The play sold out every year it was performed, and due to its popularity, Hegbert eventually had to move it from the church to the Beaufort Playhouse, which had a lot more seating. By the time I was a senior in high school, the performances ran twice to packed houses, which, considering who actually performed it, was a story in and of itself.
You see, Hegbert wanted young people to perform the play—seniors in high school, not the theater group. I reckon he thought it would be a good learning experience before the seniors headed off to college and came face-to-face with all the fornicators. He was that kind of guy, you know, always wanting to save us from temptation. He wanted us to know that God is out there watching you, even when you’re away from home, and that if you put your trust in God, you’ll be all right in the end. It was a lesson that I would eventually learn in time, though it wasn’t Hegbert who taught me.