On Saturday, eight days after she'd arrived, Theresa returned to Boston. She unlocked the door to her apartment and Harvey came running from the back bedroom. He rubbed against her leg, purring softly, and Theresa picked him up and brought him to the refrigerator. She took out a piece of cheese and gave it to Harvey while she stroked his head, grateful that her neighbor Ella had agreed to look after him while she was away. After he finished the cheese, he jumped from her arms and ambled toward the sliding glass doors that led to the back patio. The apartment was stuffy from being closed up, and she slid the doors open to air it out. After unpacking her bags and picking up her keys and mail from Ella, she poured herself a glass of wine, went to the stereo, and popped in the John Coltrane CD she had bought. As the sound of jazz filtered through the room, she sorted through the mail. As usual, it was mainly bills, and she put them aside for another time. There were eight messages on her recorder when she checked it. Two were from men she had dated in the past, asking her to call if she had a chance. She thought about it briefly, then decided against it. Neither of them was attractive to her, and she didn't feel like going out just because she had a break in her schedule. She also had calls from her mother and sister, and she made a note to call them sometime this week. There were no calls from Kevin. By now he was rafting and camping with his father somewhere in Arizona. Without Kevin, the house seemed strangely silent. It was tidy as well, though, and this somehow made it a little easier. It was nice to come home to a house and only have to clean up after herself once in a while. She thought about the two weeks of vacation she still had left this year. She and Kevin would spend some time at the beach because she had promised him they would. But that left another week. She could use it around Christmas, but this year Kevin would be at his father's, so there didn't seem to be much point in that. She hated spending Christmas alone-it had always been her favorite holiday-but she didn't have a choice, and she decided that dwelling on that fact was useless. Maybe she could go to Bermuda or Jamaica or somewhere else in the Caribbean-but then, she didn't really want to go alone, and she didn't know who else would go with her. Janet might be able to, but she doubted it. Her three kids kept her busy, and Edward most likely couldn't get the time off work. Perhaps she could use the week to do the things around the house she had been meaning to do . . . but that seemed like a waste. Who wanted to spend their vacation painting and hanging wallpaper? She finally gave up and decided that if nothing exciting came to mind, she would just save it for the following year. Maybe she and Kevin would go to Hawaii for a couple of weeks. She got into bed and picked up one of the novels she had started at Cape Cod. She read quickly and without distraction and finished almost a hundred pages before she was tired. At midnight she turned off the light. That night, she dreamed she was walking along a deserted beach, though she didn't know why. * * * The mail on her desk Monday morning was overwhelming. There were almost two hundred letters there when she arrived, and another fifty arrived later that day with the postman. As soon as she walked into the office, Deanna had pointed proudly at the stack. "See, I told you so," she had said with a smile. Theresa asked that her calls be put on hold, and she started opening the mail right away. Without exception, they were responses to the letter she had published in her column. Most were from women, though a few men wrote in as well, and their uniformity of opinion surprised her. One by one, she read how much they had been touched by the anonymous letter. Many asked if she knew who the writer was, and a few women suggested that if the man was single, they wanted to marry him. She discovered that almost every Sunday edition across the country had run the column, and the letters came from as far away as Los Angeles. Six men claimed they had written the letter themselves, and four of them wanted royalties for it-one even threatened legal action. But when she examined their handwriting, none of them even remotely resembled the letter's. At noon she went to lunch at her favorite Japanese restaurant, and a couple of people who were dining at other tables mentioned that they had read the column as well. "My wife taped it to the refrigerator door," one man said, which made Theresa laugh out loud. By the end of the day she had worked through most of the stack, and she was tired. She hadn't worked on her next column at all, and she felt the pressure building behind her neck, as it usually did when her deadline approached. At five-thirty she started working on a column about Kevin being away and what that was like for her. It was going better than she expected and she was almost finished when her phone rang. It was the newspaper's receptionist. "Hey, Theresa, I know you asked me to hold your calls, and I have been," she started. "It wasn't easy, by the way-you got about sixty calls today. The phone has been ringing off the hook." "So what's up?" "This woman keeps calling me. This is the fifth time she's called today, and she called twice last week. She won't give her name, but I recognize the voice by now. She says she's got to talk to you." "Can't you just take a message?" "I've tried that, but she's persistent. She keeps asking to be put on hold until you have a minute. She says she's calling long distance, but that she has to talk to you." Theresa thought for a moment as she stared at the screen in front of her. Her column was almost done-just another couple of paragraphs to go. "Can't you ask for a phone number where I can reach her?" "No, she won't give me that, either. She's very evasive." "Do you know what she wants?" "I don't have any idea. But she sounds coherent-not like a lot of people who've been calling today. One guy asked me to marry him." Theresa laughed. "Okay, tell her to hold on. I'll be there in a couple of minutes." "Will do." "What line is she on?" "Five." "Thanks." Theresa finished the column quickly. She would go over it again as soon as she got off the phone. She picked up the receiver and pressed line five. "Hello." The line was silent for a moment. Then, in a soft, melodic voice, the caller asked, "Is this Theresa Osborne?" "Yes, it is." Theresa leaned back in her chair and started twirling her hair. "Are you the one that wrote the column about the message in a bottle?" "Yes. How can I help you?" The caller paused again. Theresa could hear her breathing, as if she were thinking about what to say next. After a moment, the caller asked: "Can you tell me the names that were in the letter?" Theresa closed her eyes and stopped twirling. Just another curiosity seeker, she thought. Her eyes went back to the screen and she began to look over the column. "No, I'm sorry, I can't. I don't want that information made public." The caller was silent again, and Theresa began to grow impatient. She started reading the first paragraph on the screen. Then the caller surprised her. "Please," she said, "I've got to know." Theresa looked up from the screen. She could hear an absolute earnestness in the caller's voice. There was something else there, too, but she couldn't put her finger on it. "I'm sorry," Theresa said finally, "I really can't." "Then can you answer a question?" "Maybe." "Was the letter addressed to Catherine and signed by a man named Garrett?" The caller had Theresa's full attention and she sat up higher in her seat. "Who is this?" she asked with sudden urgency, and by the time the words were out, she knew the caller would know the truth. "It is, isn't it?" "Who is this?" Theresa asked again, this time more gently. She heard the caller take a deep breath before she answered. "My name is Michelle Turner and I live in Norfolk, Virginia." "How did you know about the letter?" "My husband is in the navy and he's stationed here. Three years ago, I was walking along the beach here, and I found a letter just like the one you found on your vacation. After reading your column, I knew it was the same person who wrote it. The initials were the same." Theresa stopped for a moment. It couldn't be, she thought. Three years ago? "What kind of paper was it written on?" "The paper was beige, and it had a picture of a sailing ship in the upper right hand corner." Theresa felt her heart pick up speed. It still seemed unbelievable to her. "Your letter had a picture of a ship, too, didn't it?" "Yes, it did," Theresa whispered. "I knew it. I knew it as soon as I read your column." Michelle sounded as if a load had been lifted from her shoulders. "Do you still have a copy of the letter?" Theresa asked. "Yes. My husband's never seen it, but I take it out every now and then just to read it again. It's a little different from the letter you copied in your column, but the feelings are the same." "Could you fax me a copy?" "Sure," she said before pausing. "It's amazing, isn't it? I mean, first me finding it so long ago, and now you finding one." "Yes," Theresa whispered, "it is." After giving the fax number to Michelle, Theresa could barely proofread her column. Michelle had to go to a copy store to fax the letter, and Theresa found herself pacing from her desk to the fax machine every five minutes as she waited for the letter to arrive. Forty-six minutes later she heard the fax machine come to life. The first page through was a cover letter from National Copy Service, addressed to Theresa Osborne at the Boston Times. She watched it as it fell to the tray beneath and heard the sound of the fax machine as it copied the letter line for line. It went quickly-it took only ten seconds to copy a page-but even that wait seemed too long. Then a third page started printing, and she realized that, like the letter she had found, this one too must have covered both sides. She reached for the copies as the fax machine beeped, signaling an end to the transmission. She took them to her desk without reading them and placed them facedown for a couple of minutes, trying to slow her breathing. It's only a letter, she told herself. Taking a deep breath, she lifted the cover page. A quick glance at the ship's logo proved to her that it was indeed the same writer. She put the page into better light and began to read. March 6, 1994 My Darling Catherine, Where are you? And why, I wonder as I sit alone in a darkened house, have we been forced apart? I don't know the answer to these questions, no matter how hard I try to understand. The reason is plain, but my mind forces me to dismiss it and I am torn by anxiety in all my waking hours. I am lost without you. I am soulless, a drifter without a home, a solitary bird in a flight to nowhere. I am all these things, and I am nothing at all. This, my darling, is my life without you. I long for you to show me how to live again. I try to remember the way we once were, on the breezy deck of Happenstance. Do you recall how we worked on her together? We became a part of the ocean as we rebuilt her, for we both knew it was the ocean that brought us together. It was times like those that I understood the meaning of true happiness. At night, we sailed on blackened water and I watched as the moonlight reflected your beauty. I would watch you with awe and know in my heart that we'd be together forever. Is it always that way, I wonder, when two people are in love? I don't know, but if my life since you were taken from me is any indication, then I think I know the answers. From now on, I know I will be alone. I think of you, I dream of you, I conjure you up when I need you most. This is all I can do, but to me it isn't enough. It will never be enough, this I know, yet what else is there for me to do? If you were here, you would tell me, but I have been cheated of even that. You always knew the proper words to ease the pain I felt. You always knew how to make me feel good inside. Is it possible that you know how I feel without you? When I dream, I like to think you do. Before we came together, I moved through life without meaning, without reason. I know that somehow, every step I took since the moment I could walk was a step toward finding you. We were destined to be together. But now, alone in my house, I have come to realize that destiny can hurt a person as much as it can bless him, and I find myself wondering why-out of all the people in all the world I could ever have loved-I had to fall in love with someone who was taken away from me. Garrett After reading the letter, she leaned back in her chair and brought her fingers to her lips. The sounds from the newsroom seemed to be coming from someplace far away. She reached for her purse, found the initial letter, and laid the two next to each other on her desk. She read the first letter, followed by the second one, then read them in reverse order, feeling almost like a voyeur of sorts, as if she were eavesdropping on a private, secret-filled moment. She got up from her desk, feeling strangely unraveled. At the vending machine she bought herself a can of apple juice, trying to comprehend the feelings inside her. When she returned, however, her legs suddenly seemed wobbly and she plopped down in her chair. If she hadn't been standing in exactly the right place, she felt that she would have hit the floor. Hoping to clear her mind, she absently began to clean up the clutter on her desk. Pens went in the drawer, articles she'd used in research were filed away, the stapler was reloaded, and pencils were sharpened and set in a coffee cup on her desk. When she finished, nothing was out of place except for the two letters, which she hadn't moved at all. A little more than a week ago she'd found the first letter, and the words had left a deep impression, though the pragmatist inside her forced her to try to put it behind her. But now that seemed impossible. Not after finding a second letter, written by presumably the same person. Were there more? she wondered. And what type of man would send them in bottles? It seemed miraculous that another person, three years ago, had stumbled across a letter and had kept it hidden away in her drawer because it had touched her as well. Yet it had happened. But what did it all mean? She knew it shouldn't really matter much to her, but all at once it did. She ran her hand through her hair and looked around the room. Everywhere people were on the move. She opened her can of apple juice and took a swallow, trying to fathom what was going through her head. She wasn't exactly sure yet, and her only wish was that no one would walk up to her desk in the next couple of minutes until she had a better grasp of things. She slipped the two letters back into her purse while the opening line of the second one rolled through her head. Where are you? She exited the computer program she used to write her column, and in spite of her misgivings, she chose a program that allowed her to access the Internet. After a moment's hesitation, she typed the words WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH into the search program and hit the return key. She knew something would probably be listed, and in less than five seconds she had a number of different topics she could choose from. Found 3 matches containing Wrightsville Beach. Displaying matches 1-3. Locator Categories-Locator Sites-Mariposa Web Pages Locator Categories Regional : U.S. States : North Carolina : Cities : Wrightsville Beach Locator Sites Regional : U.S. States : North Carolina : Cities : Wilmington : Real Estate-Ticar Real Estate Company-also offices in Wrightsville Beach and Carolina Beach Regional : U.S. States : North Carolina : Cities : Wrightsville Beach : Lodging -Cascade Beach Resort As she sat staring at the screen, she suddenly felt ridiculous. Even if Deanna had been right and Garrett lived somewhere in the Wrightsville Beach area, it would still be nearly impossible to locate him. Why, then, was she trying to do so? She knew the reason, of course. The letters were written by a man who loved a woman deeply, a man who was now alone. As a girl, she had come to believe in the ideal man-the prince or knight of her childhood stories. In the real world, however, men like that simply didn't exist. Real people had real agendas, real demands, real expectations about how other people should behave. True, there were good men out there-men who loved with all their hearts and remained steadfast in the face of great obstacles-the type of man she'd wanted to meet since she and David divorced. But how to find such a man? Here and now, she knew such a man existed-a man who was now alone-and knowing that made something inside her tighten. It seemed obvious that Catherine-whoever she was-was probably dead, or at least missing without explanation. Yet Garrett still loved her enough to send love letters to her for at least three years. If nothing else, he had proven that he was capable of loving someone deeply and, more important, remaining fully committed-even long after his loved one was gone. Where are you? It kept ringing through her head, like a song she heard on early morning radio that kept repeating itself the entire afternoon. Where are you? She didn't know exactly, but he did exist, and one of the things she had learned early in her life was that if you discovered something that made you tighten inside, you had better try to learn more about it. If you simply ignored the feeling, you would never know what might happen, and in many ways that was worse than finding out you were wrong in the first place. Because if you were wrong, you could go forward in your life without ever looking back over your shoulder and wondering what might have been. But where would this all lead? And what did it mean? Had the discovery of the letter been somehow fated, or was it simply a coincidence? Or maybe, she thought, it was simply a reminder of what she was missing in her life. She twirled her hair absently as she pondered the last question. Okay, she decided. I can live with that. But she was curious about the mysterious writer, and there was no sense in denying it-at least to herself. And because no one else would understand it (how could they, if she didn't?), she resolved then and there not to tell anyone about what she was feeling. Where are you? Deep down she knew the computer searches and fascination with Garrett would lead to nothing at all. It would gradually pass into some sort of unusual story that she would retell time and time again. She would go on with her life-writing her column, spending time with Kevin, doing all the things a single parent had to do. And she was almost right. Her life would have proceeded exactly as she imagined. But something happened three days later that caused her to charge into the unknown with only a suitcase full of clothes and a stack of papers that may or may not have meant anything. She discovered a third letter from Garrett.