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 dogwoods 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.