This book is dedicated with love to Pat and Billy Mills.
My life is better because of you both.
Thank you for everything.
Again, I’d like to thank my wife, Cathy, who had to be more patient with me than usual while writing this novel. What a wild eleven years we’ve shared, huh?
My three sons (Miles, Ryan, and Landon) also deserve my thanks, simply because they help me keep everything in perspective. It’s fun watching you guys grow up.
My agent, Theresa Park, of Sanford Greenburger Associates, has been with me every step of the way, and it’s been my good fortune to have worked with her. I can never say it enough: Thank you so much for everything-you’re the best!
My editor, Jamie Raab, of Warner Books, has also been great to work with-again! What can I say? I’m lucky to have your guidance-don’t ever believe that I take it for granted. I hope we work together for a long, long time.
Many thanks to Larry Kirshbaum, the number one guy at Warner Books, who also happens to be a really nice guy, and Maureen Egen, who is not only a gem, but a brilliant gem. You both changed my life for the better and I’ll never forget it.
And finally, a wineglass raised in toast to the rest of those people who help me every step of the way: Jennifer Romanello, Emi Battaglia, Edna Farley, and the rest of the publicity department at Warner; Flag, who designed all my fabulous book covers; Scott Schwimer, my entertainment attorney; Howie Sanders and Richard Green at United Talent Agency, two of the best at what they do; Denise DiNovi, the fabulous producer of Message in a Bottle (the main character in this novel is named for her, by the way); Courtenay Valenti and Lorenzo Di Bonaventura at Warner Bros.; Lynn Harris at New Line Cinema; Mark Johnson, producer . . .
It would later be called one of the most violent storms in North Carolina history. Because it occurred in 1999, some of the most superstitious citizens considered it an omen, the first step toward the end of time. Others simply shook their heads and said that they knew something like that would happen sooner or later. In all, nine documented tornadoes would touch down that evening in the eastern part of the state, destroying nearly thirty homes in the process. Telephone lines lay strewn across roads, transformers blazed without anyone to stop them. Thousands of trees were felled, flash floods swept over banks of three major rivers, and lives changed forever with one fell swoop of Mother Nature.
It had begun in an instant. One minute it was cloudy and dark, but not unusually so; in the next, lightning, gale-force winds, and blinding rain exploded from the early summer sky. The system had blown in from the northwest and was crossing the state at nearly forty miles an hour. All at once, radio stations crackled with emergency warnings, documenting the storm’s ferocity. People who could took cover inside, but people on the highway, like Denise Holton, had no place to go. Now that she was firmly in its midst, there was little she could do. Rain fell so hard in places that traffic slowed to five miles an hour and Denise held the wheel with white knuckles, her face a mask of concentration. At times it was impossible to see the road through the windshield, but stopping meant certain disaster because of the people on the highway behind her. They wouldn’t be able to see her car with time enough to stop. Pulling the shoulder strap of the seat belt over her head, she leaned over the steering wheel, looking for the dotted lines in the road, catching a glimpse here and there. There were long stretches during which she felt as if she were driving on instinct alone, because nothing was visible at all. Like an ocean wave, rain poured across her windshield, obscuring nearly everything. Her headlights seemed absolutely useless, and she wanted to stop, but where? Where would it be safe? On the side of the highway? People were swerving all over the road, as blind as she was. She made an instant decision-somehow, moving seemed safer. Her eyes darted from the road, to the taillights in front of her, to the rearview mirror; she hoped and prayed that everyone else on the road was doing the same thing. Looking for anything that would keep them safe. Anything at all.
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the storm weakened and it was possible to see again. She suspected she’d reached the front edge of the system; everyone on the road apparently guessed the same thing. Despite the slick conditions, cars began to speed up, racing to stay ahead of the front. Denise sped up as well, staying with them. Ten minutes later, the rains still evident but slowing even more, she glanced at the gas gauge and felt a knot form in her stomach. She knew she had to stop soon. She didn’t have enough gas to make it home.
Minutes went by.
The flow of traffic kept her vigilant. Thanks to a new moon, there was little light in the sky. She glanced at the dashboard again. The needle on the gas gauge was deep into the red shaded area. Despite her fears about staying ahead of the storm, she slowed the car, hoping to conserve what was left, hoping it would be enough. Hoping to stay ahead of the storm.
People began to race by, the spray against her windshield wreaking havoc with her wipers. She pressed onward.
Another ten minutes passed before she heaved a sigh of relief. Gas, less than a mile away, according to the sign. She put on her blinker, merged, rode in the right-hand lane, exited. She stopped at the first open pump.
She’d made it but knew the storm was still on its way. It would reach this area within the next fifteen minutes, if not sooner. She had time, but not a lot.
As quickly as she could, Denise filled the tank and then helped Kyle out of his car seat. Kyle held her hand as they went inside to pay; she’d insisted on it because of the number of cars at the station. Kyle was shorter than the door handle, and as she walked in she noticed how crowded it was. It seemed that everyone driving on the highway had had the same idea-get gas while you can. Denise grabbed a can of Diet Coke, her third of the day, then searched the refrigerators along the back wall. Near the corner she found strawberry-flavored milk for Kyle. It was getting late, and Kyle loved milk before bedtime. Hopefully, if she could stay ahead of the storm, he’d sleep most of the way back.
By the time she went to pay she was fifth in line. The people in front of her looked impatient and tired, as if they couldn’t understand how it could be so crowded at this hour. Somehow it seemed as if they’d forgotten about the storm. But from the looks in their eyes, she knew they hadn’t. Everyone in the store was on edge. Hurry up, their expressions said, we need to get out of here.
Denise sighed. She could feel the tension in her neck, and she rolled her shoulders. It didn’t help much. She closed her eyes, rubbed them, opened them again. In the aisles behind her, she heard a mother arguing with her young son. Denise glanced over her shoulder. The boy appeared to be about the same age as Kyle, four and a half or so. His mother seemed as stressed as Denise felt. She was holding on tightly to her son’s arm. The child stomped his foot.
“But I want the cupcakes!” he whined.
His mother stood her ground. “I said no. You’ve had enough junk today.”
“But you’re getting something.”
After a moment Denise turned away. The line hadn’t moved at all. What was taking so long? She peeked around those in front of her, trying to figure it out. The lady at the cash register looked confused by the rush, and everyone in front of her, it seemed, wanted to pay with a credit card. Another minute crawled by, shrinking the line by one. By this time the mother and child got into line directly behind Denise, their argument continuing.
Denise put her hand on Kyle’s shoulder. He was sipping his milk through a straw, standing quietly. She couldn’t help but overhear the two people behind her.
“Aw, c’mon, Mom!”
“If you keep it up, you’ll get a swat. We don’t have time for this.”
“But I’m hungry.”
“Then you should have eaten your hot dog.”
“I didn’t want a hot dog.”
And so it went. Three customers later Denise finally reached the register, opened her pocketbook, and paid with cash. She kept one credit card for emergencies but seldom, if ever, used it. For the clerk, making change seemed more difficult than swiping credit cards. She kept glancing up at the digital numbers on the register, trying to get it right. The argument between mother and son continued unabated. In time Denise finally received her change and put her pocketbook away, then turned toward the door. Knowing how hard it was for everyone tonight, she smiled at the mother behind her, as if to say, Kids are tough sometimes, aren’t they?
In response, the woman rolled her eyes. “You’re lucky,” she said.
Denise looked at her curiously. “Excuse me?”
“I said you’re lucky.” She nodded toward her son. “This one here never shuts up.”
Denise glanced at the floor, nodded with tight lips, then turned and left the store. Despite the stress of the storm, despite the long day driving and her time at the evaluation center, all she could think about was Kyle. Walking toward the car, Denise suddenly felt the urge to cry.
“No,” she whispered to herself, “you’re the lucky one.”
Why had this happened? Why, of all the children, was Kyle the one?
Back in the car after stopping for gas, Denise hit the highway again, staying ahead of the storm. For the next twenty minutes rain fell steadily but not ominously, and she watched the wipers push the water back and forth while she made her way back to Edenton, North Carolina. Her Diet Coke sat between the emergency brake and the driver’s seat, and though she knew it wasn’t good for her, she finished the last of it and immediately wished she’d bought another. The extra caffeine, she hoped, would keep her alert and focused on the drive, instead of on Kyle. But Kyle was always there.