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Safe Haven

By:Nicholas Sparks


As  Katie wound her way among the tables, a breeze from the Atlantic  rippled through her hair. Carrying three plates in her left hand and  another in her right, she wore jeans and a T-shirt that read Ivan's: Try  Our Fish Just for the Halibut. She brought the plates to four men  wearing polo shirts; the one closest to her caught her eye and smiled.  Though he tried to act as though he was just a friendly guy, she knew he  was watching her as she walked away. Melody had mentioned the men had  come from Wilmington and were scouting locations for a movie.

After  retrieving a pitcher of sweet tea, she refilled their glasses before  returning to the waitress station. She stole a glance at the view. It  was late April, the temperature hovering just around perfect, and blue  skies stretched to the horizon. Beyond her, the Intracoastal was calm  despite the breeze and seemed to mirror the color of the sky. A dozen  seagulls perched on the railing, waiting to dart beneath the tables if  someone dropped a scrap of food.

Ivan Smith, the owner, hated  them. He called them rats-with-wings, and he'd already patrolled the  railing twice wielding a wooden plunger, trying to scare them off.  Melody had leaned toward Katie and confessed that she was more worried  about where the plunger had been than she was about the seagulls. Katie  said nothing.

She started another pot of sweet tea, wiping down  the station. A moment later, she felt someone tap her on the shoulder.  She turned to see Ivan's daughter, Eileen. A pretty, ponytailed  nineteen-year-old, she was working part-time as the restaurant hostess.

"Katie-can you take another table?"

Katie scanned her tables, running the rhythm in her head. "Sure." She nodded.

Eileen  walked down the stairs. From nearby tables Katie could hear snippets of  conversations-people talking about friends or family, the weather or  fishing. At a table in the corner, she saw two people close their menus.  She hustled over and took the order, but didn't linger at the table  trying to make small talk, like Melody did. She wasn't good at small  talk, but she was efficient and polite and none of the customers seemed  to mind.         



She'd been working at the restaurant since early March.  Ivan had hired her on a cold, sunny afternoon when the sky was the color  of robins' eggs. When he'd said she could start work the following  Monday, it took everything she had not to cry in front of him. She'd  waited until she was walking home before breaking down. At the time, she  was broke and hadn't eaten in two days.

She refilled waters and  sweet teas and headed to the kitchen. Ricky, one of the cooks, winked at  her as he always did. Two days ago he'd asked her out, but she'd told  him that she didn't want to date anyone at the restaurant. She had the  feeling he would try again and hoped her instincts were wrong.

"I  don't think it's going to slow down today," Ricky commented. He was  blond and lanky, perhaps a year or two younger than her, and still lived  with his parents. "Every time we think we're getting caught up, we get  slammed again."

"It's a beautiful day."

"But why are  people here? On a day like today, they should be at the beach or out  fishing. Which is exactly what I'm doing when I finish up here."

"That sounds like a good idea."

"Can I drive you home later?"

He offered to drive her at least twice a week. "Thank you, no. I don't live that far."

"It's no problem," he persisted. "I'd be glad to do it."

"Walking's good for me."

She  handed him her ticket and Ricky pinned it up on the wheel and then  located one of her orders. She carried the order back to her section and  dropped it off at a table.

Ivan's was a local institution, a  restaurant that had been in business for almost thirty years. In the  time she'd been working there, she'd come to recognize the regulars, and  as she crossed the restaurant floor her eyes traveled over them to the  people she hadn't seen before. Couples flirting, other couples ignoring  each other. Families. No one seemed out of place and no one had come  around asking for her, but there were still times when her hands began  to shake, and even now she slept with a light on.

Her short hair  was chestnut brown; she'd been dyeing it in the kitchen sink of the tiny  cottage she rented. She wore no makeup and knew her face would pick up a  bit of color, maybe too much. She reminded herself to buy sunscreen,  but after paying rent and utilities on the cottage, there wasn't much  left for luxuries. Even sunscreen was a stretch. Ivan's was a good job  and she was glad to have it, but the food was inexpensive, which meant  the tips weren't great. On her steady diet of rice and beans, pasta and  oatmeal, she'd lost weight in the past four months. She could feel her  ribs beneath her shirt, and until a few weeks ago, she'd had dark  circles under her eyes that she thought would never go away.

"I  think those guys are checking you out," Melody said, nodding toward the  table with the four men from the movie studio. "Especially the  brown-haired one. The cute one."

"Oh," Katie said. She started  another pot of coffee. Anything she said to Melody was sure to get  passed around, so Katie usually said very little to her.

"What? You don't think he's cute?"

"I didn't really notice."

"How can you not notice when a guy is cute?" Melody stared at her in disbelief.

"I don't know," Katie answered.

Like  Ricky, Melody was a couple of years younger than Katie, maybe  twenty-five or so. An auburn-haired, green-eyed minx, she dated a guy  named Steve who made deliveries for the home improvement store on the  other side of town. Like everyone else in the restaurant, she'd grown up  in Southport, which she described as being a paradise for children,  families, and the elderly, but the most dismal place on earth for single  people. At least once a week, she told Katie that she was planning to  move to Wilmington, which had bars and clubs and a lot more shopping.  She seemed to know everything about everybody. Gossip, Katie sometimes  thought, was Melody's real profession.

"I heard Ricky asked you out," she said, changing the subject, "but you said no."

"I don't like to date people at work." Katie pretended to be absorbed in organizing the silverware trays.

"We could double-date. Ricky and Steve go fishing together."

Katie  wondered if Ricky had put her up to it or whether it was Melody's idea.  Maybe both. In the evenings, after the restaurant closed, most of the  staff stayed around for a while, visiting over a couple of beers. Aside  from Katie, everyone had worked at Ivan's for years.

"I don't think that's a good idea," Katie demurred.         



"Why not?"

"I  had a bad experience once," Katie said. "Dating a guy from work, I  mean. Since then, I've kind of made it a rule not to do it again."

Melody  rolled her eyes before hurrying off to one of her tables. Katie dropped  off two checks and cleared empty plates. She kept busy, as she always  did, trying to be efficient and invisible. She kept her head down and  made sure the waitress station was spotless. It made the day go by  faster. She didn't flirt with the guy from the studio, and when he left  he didn't look back.

Katie worked both the lunch and dinner  shift. As day faded into night, she loved watching the sky turning from  blue to gray to orange and yellow at the western rim of the world. At  sunset, the water sparkled and sailboats heeled in the breeze. The  needles on the pine trees seemed to shimmer. As soon as the sun dropped  below the horizon, Ivan turned on the propane gas heaters and the coils  began to glow like jack-o'-lanterns. Katie's face had gotten slightly  sunburned, and the waves of radiant heat made her skin sting.

Abby  and Big Dave replaced Melody and Ricky in the evening. Abby was a high  school senior who giggled a lot, and Big Dave had been cooking dinners  at Ivan's for nearly twenty years. He was married with two kids and had a  tattoo of a scorpion on his right forearm. He weighed close to three  hundred pounds and in the kitchen his face was always shiny. He had  nicknames for everyone and called her Katie Kat.

The dinner rush  lasted until nine. When it began to clear out, Katie cleaned and closed  up the wait station. She helped the busboys carry plates to the  dishwasher while her final tables finished up. At one of them was a  young couple and she'd seen the rings on their fingers as they held  hands across the table. They were attractive and happy, and she felt a  sense of déjà vu. She had been like them once, a long time ago, for just  a moment. Or so she thought, because she learned the moment was only an  illusion. Katie turned away from the blissful couple, wishing that she  could erase her memories forever and never have that feeling again.


The  next morning, Katie stepped onto the porch with a cup of coffee, the  floorboards creaking beneath her bare feet, and leaned against the  railing. Lilies sprouted amid the wild grass in what once was a flower  bed, and she raised the cup, savoring the aroma as she took a sip.