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Miles to go, p.17
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       Miles to Go, p.17

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  He started laughing, almost imperceptibly at first, then it grew until he almost doubled over. “Key lime pie,” he said. “Eat some key lime pie.”

  By the time we finished eating, it was dark.

  “Thank you for dinner,” I said. “We better get going. We still need to make camp.”

  “Where are you camping tonight?” he asked.

  “I’m not sure. The first campground we come to.”

  “That will be a while,” he said. “There’s nothing around here. You’re welcome to stay with me. There’s a couple bunk beds in back. I can sleep up in the cabin.”

  “I thought there was no overnight camping.”

  “I’m not camping,” he said. “I’m parking.”

  Spun like an adman, I thought.

  I slept in a bunk that hung over the truck’s cabin and Kailamai slept on cushions above the table. She was still a little apprehensive about our host, and after I turned out the lights she whispered to me, “You don’t think he’s like a serial killer or something, do you?”

  “No,” I whispered back. “Worse.”

  “What?”

  “He’s an adman.”

  I was just about asleep when Kailamai said, “Two muffins are in an oven and one says to the other, ‘Sure is hot in here.’ The other shouts, ‘Holy cow, a talking muffin!’ “

  CHAPTER

  Forty-three

  It would appear that a significant portion of the Montana state budget has gone to the making of historical markers.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  The adman (he never told us his name) made breakfast for us, a homemade concoction he called scramble-mamble, a potpourri of diced potatoes, eggs, cheddar cheese, trout, onions, and bacon. It was actually pretty good.

  We thanked him, wished him well, and headed off toward Missoula.

  “That guy liked to fish,” Kailamai said.

  “Everyone needs a reason to get up in the morning,” I said.

  The traffic grew heavier as we neared Missoula, and I fully expected we’d be stopped by the Highway Patrol, but it never happened. As we exited toward the town, we passed a billboard advertising the “Testicle Festival.”

  “What do you think that is?” Kailamai asked.

  “I don’t want to know,” I said.

  Later that afternoon we stopped at a gas-station convenience store for water and a Hostess apple pie for Kailamai. As we came out of the store, we walked past a large semi filling up at the gas pumps. A trucker sat on the front bumper of his truck.

  “Howdy,” he said to us with a subtle tip of his cap. He wore a flannel shirt and a belt buckle the size of a pancake.

  “Could you tell us where’s the next hotel?” I asked.

  “Depends on which way you’re goin’. East or west?”

  “East.”

  “Maybe thirty miles.”

  I groaned. “Thanks.” I turned away.

  “Need a ride? I’m headed that way.”

  “No thanks. We’re walking.”

  “Okay. Be safe now.”

  The truckers were always helpful.

  A couple hours later I said, “I’ve discovered something.”

  “What?” Kailamai asked.

  “There’s a secret to naming Montana towns. You pick an animal and then one of its body parts, and combine them.”

  She looked at me like I was crazy.

  “No, really, think about it. We’ve been through Beaver Tail, Bearmouth, Bull’s Eye—the possibilities are endless.”

  “I could be good at this,” Kailamai said. “We could name the next town Moose Antler.”

  “Totally believable,” I said. “Or Otter Tail.”

  “Rabbit’s Foot.”

  “Badger Paw.”

  “Wait,” Kailamai said, “I’ve got the best one. Monkey Butt, Montana.”

  We both started laughing. I liked this girl.

  The next town we came to didn’t conform to my name formula—Drummond—but the first restaurant we passed did. The Bull’s End Café. A sign in front of the eatery proclaimed PAULINE’S BBQ SAUCE MADE HERE beneath the backside of an anatomically correct bull. Not surprisingly, the establishment was out of business.

  “That’s just gross,” Kailamai said. “What part of that is supposed to make you want to eat there?”

  “That’s why there are advertising agencies,” I said.

  A little further down the road we came to the Frosty Freeze, a weathered A-framed building with a sliding window for takeout. Out in front of the building there was a plywood, painted pig holding an American flag under a sign that advertised ITALIAN SLOPPY JOE’S, YOU’LL LOVE’EM!

  The place looked abandoned, but there was a WE ARE OPEN paper sign on the window. As soon as we approached the building, a woman appeared at the counter.

  “What can I get for you?” she asked, her breath still pungent from the cigarette I could see smoking behind her.

  “I’ll try your Italian sloppy joe,” I said. “How about you, Kailamai?”

  “I’ll have the sloppy joe too. Can I have Tater Tots?”

  “We’ll have Tots on both and a Diet Coke for me.”

  “We have Pepsi products,” she said.

  “Fine, a Diet Pepsi and a Sprite for her.”

  “We don’t have Sprite, we have Pepsi products.”

  “Whatever looks like Sprite,” I said.

  “Sierra Mist,” she said, leaving the window to prepare our meals.

  The special turned out to be a sloppy joe with the addition of provolone cheese, onions, and garlic, which was surprisingly good, though Kailamai picked out the onions.

  That night we pitched our tent near a golf course.

  “Do you golf?” Kailamai asked.

  “I used to,” I said, rolling out my sleeping bag.

  “This man was out golfing with his buddies. He was about to putt when a hearse drove by leading a funeral procession. The man set down his club, took off his hat, and put it over his heart until the procession had passed. ‘That was the most decent thing I’ve ever seen you do,’ one of his friends said.

  “‘It’s the least I could do,’ he replied. ‘We were married thirty-two years.’”

  CHAPTER

  Forty-four

  Today I learned Kailamai’s story. It’s almost as difficult to believe that someone with so many trials could harbor such hope, as that there are those with so much advantage who harbor such hopelessness.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  The next morning the river that had intermittently followed our journey was running alongside us again. I don’t know why the sound of the river made me feel peaceful—I’ve heard it has something to do with our experience in the womb—but few things so easily bring calm as the sound of rushing water.

  Perhaps that had something to do with why it was here, along that barren stretch of highway, that Kailamai finally told me her story. We had been walking quietly for a few minutes when she said, “You haven’t said anything about your mother.”

  “She passed away when I was eight.”

  “Do you remember what she was like?”

  “She was lovely,” I said. “She was the kindest person I’ve ever known. Once I saw her give some money to a guy begging on the street. My dad got real mad at her. He said, ‘You know he’s just going to use it to buy booze.’ My mother said, ‘Maybe that’s what he needs most right now.’

  “If the world was populated with people like her, there would be no wars or want.” I frowned. “I miss her. After all this time I still miss her.”

  “I wish I had a mother like that,” Kailamai said. She bowed her head and we walked a ways in silence. Then she asked, “Do you want to know why I was put in foster care?”

  “If you want to tell me.”

  “It’s kind of a long story.”

  “We’ve got a long walk,” I said.

  “Okay.” She took a deep breath. “My mother was the opposite of yours. She was really abusi
ve. Actually, both my mother and my older sister were. Growing up, I thought that getting beaten up was part of life. My sister beat me up almost every day, and my mother would beat the tar out of me at least once a week. Once she beat me so badly that it took me more than an hour before I could even crawl back to my room.”

  I now understood why she wasn’t sorry her mother was dead. “What was wrong with them that they thought they could beat you?” I asked.

  “I don’t know.” She pulled her hair back from her face. “Probably because they could. I was smaller than them and they were just mean. They never, like said, ‘Pardon me,’ or stuff like that, they’d just shove you out of the way or pull you by your hair.

  “It wasn’t until the fourth grade that I realized that not everyone had a home like mine. I couldn’t believe that some of my classmates actually liked their parents.”

  “That’s remarkably sad,” I said.

  “My mom was an alcoholic. She lived off welfare and food stamps and whatever men gave her. When I got a little older, the men my mother brought home started noticing me. Every few months one of them would come at me. I knew my mother knew what they were doing, but she just acted like it was no big deal. Then my mother married one of them and he moved in. Kurt,” she said, her mouth twisting a little with the name.

  “Kurt was a meth addict and he got my mom and sister on it. I wouldn’t do drugs, so he hated me. Once my sister was beating me up, and he sat there and cheered her on. It was the worst whupping she’d ever given me.

  “He’d hit me too. But it wasn’t like he was mad, it’s like it turned him on or something. He’d get mad at me for stupid things, like he’d say I didn’t change the toilet paper roll, and so I was going to get it. He liked to make it last. Once he made me sit in the garage and wait a whole hour for him to beat me. Usually, he’d make me pull my pants down so he could beat my bare butt.”

  “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

  She kicked a stone. “It’s not that easy,” she said. “When it’s all you know, you just accept it.”

  I frowned.

  “But school was good. When I got to middle school, my life changed. I had this really great history teacher who liked me. Mrs. Duncan. She told me how smart I was. Once I got the highest score on a test, and she held up my test and told the whole class. She even gave me her cell phone number and said I could call her any time I had a question. I never did, but it was cool that I could have.

  “Then one day, just before school got out, the school nurse called me down to her office. She started asking me about the bruises on my arm. I told her I fell down the stairs.

  “Then she asked me about my mother. I was really scared and I told her that everything was good at home, but she knew I was lying. Finally, after like a whole hour of questions, I just broke down and told her everything. She listened and took notes. When I was done talking, she said, ‘I want you to go home and pack a suitcase. Someone will come get you.’

  “She never said who was coming. So I walked home wondering what was going to happen. When I walked in the house, my mother was furious. She said that I had left a mess in the kitchen and she went after me. I never ran from her anymore, it only made her madder, so I just stood there while she hit me.

  “When she was done, I had a bloody nose and was lying on the floor, and she kicked me in the butt and told me to clean up the blood I’d gotten on the carpet and then go to my room. I wiped up my blood and then, when I was going to my room, she said something that hurt worse than the beating. She said, ‘Why did you have to be born?’

  “I just kind of flipped. I said, ‘You don’t have to worry about me anymore. Someone’s coming to take me away.’

  “She started laughing. She said, ‘Who would want a little turd like you?’

  “It was like a miracle because just then someone rang the doorbell. My mother looked at the door, then me, then back at the door. She was, like, frozen. They pounded on the door, then a man shouted, ‘Open the door. Police.’ My mother opened it. There were six police officers. It was really scary. Two of them got in my mother’s face and began shouting at her, and another one walked over to me. I thought he was going to shout at me too, but he didn’t. He asked, ‘Are you Kailamai?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Go upstairs and pack up your things.’

  “I ran upstairs and threw everything I had in a pillow case and brought it down.

  “When I came back downstairs, the police officer said, ‘If you want, you can say goodbye to your mother.’ I went over to hug my mother, but she wouldn’t have anything to do with me. The policeman got really mad and said, ‘Hug your daughter!’ She hugged me, but it was only because she was afraid. As we were walking out, I started to cry, and I looked back at her and she said, ‘You’re the devil’s child.’ One of the policemen said, ‘Then that makes you the devil. We’ll deal with you later.’ They put me in the back of the police car.”

  “That must have been frightening,” I said.

  “It was. I mean, the policeman was nice and all. He asked me what radio station I liked. But I was still really scared. I thought I was going to jail. Instead he drove me up into the mountains where there were two other cars parked. A tall, redheaded woman came out of one. She was my caseworker. Then a woman and her daughter came out of the other. Lois and Mabel Thompson. They were my first foster home. I was like their twentieth kid, so they knew what they were doing. They were really nice.

  “After a year and a half the state sent me back to my mom. The courts made her take classes about how to be a decent mother and she was all honey and sugar when they brought me back. That lasted for about two hours, then she went back to her old self. Just before I went to bed, she smacked me in the head and told me she had gotten into all kinds of trouble because of me and I was going to pay for it.

  “The next day her husband took me out to the garage and made me take my pants off, then he whipped me with his belt. A neighbor heard me scream and called the police. They came and got me right away. They took me to this place called Children’s Village. I was there for a few months, except when I was sent to a mental hospital.”

  “Why were you sent to a mental hospital?” I asked.

  “Because I sent a letter to my judge that said if he sent me back to my mother I would commit suicide. He didn’t like that very much.”

  I looked at her gravely. “Would you have?”

  “Maybe. I was thinking about it. After the mental hospital they sent me to live with this couple named David and Karlynne. They were nice. I was the first foster child they’d ever had, so everything was kind of harder for them. Karlynne had a job and had to travel a lot, which meant I had to be home alone with her husband. David never did anything bad to me, but I didn’t really trust men, so I told her that I was afraid of being left alone with him for a week. But she had to work, so she left, and the second day I freaked out and called my caseworker and they came and got me.”

  “You don’t seem uncomfortable with me,” I said.

  “You’re different.”

  “How am I different?”

  “I don’t know. I just like you.”

  “I like you too,” I said. “So what happened next?”

  “After that they changed my caseworker. My new caseworker was awful. She didn’t believe that my mother was as bad as I told everyone, so she filed to have me sent back home. I told her that I would commit suicide and she just said I was manipulative and knew how to work the system. I didn’t like her at all. I called her supervisor and they changed her.”

  I asked, “How old were you then?”

  “It wasn’t too long ago. Maybe six months. While the state was trying to decide what to do with me, my mother gave up all her custodial rights to me. The weird thing is, she died a week later.” She looked at me. “True story.”

  “What did she die from?”

  “I don’t know. She was really fat and had diabetes and high blood pressure, so they just said natural causes. But honestly, I t
hink her husband killed her. No one knows—there wasn’t one of those things they do to see why you died.”

  “An autopsy?”

  “Yeah,” she said. “An autopsy.” She put her hands in her pockets. “They put me back at the group home for a while. Then they sent me to a new foster family, the Brysons. But they were really strict and negative and I just couldn’t do it, so one day while Mrs. Bryson was grocery shopping I ran away. I’ve been on the streets ever since.”

  “Which brings you to where I met you,” I said.

  She nodded. “Pretty unbelievable life, huh?”

  “What’s unbelievable to me is how you’ve managed to remain so positive. I’ve been with you for more than a week, and you haven’t complained once.”

  She smiled. “I heard someone say, ‘There’s no problem so big that whining won’t make it worse.’”

  I laughed.

  “The way I see it,” she said, “everyone has problems. It’s how you choose to deal with them. Some people choose to be whiners, some choose to be winners. Some choose to be victims, some choose to be victors.”

  I put my hand on her shoulder. “You’re the type who thinks of the glass as being half full instead of half empty.”

  “No,” she said, “I’m just grateful for the glass.”

  I smiled. “Out of the mouth of babes,” I said, “out of the mouth of babes.”

  CHAPTER

  Forty-five

  There are times when the great cosmic architect gives us brief glimpses of the blueprint so we can do our part.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  Two days later we walked into Butte, Montana, which has the coolest city sign I’d ever seen—an old mining rig strung with white lights.

  Butte’s a first-rate town, with movie theaters and shopping malls and at least a dozen hotels to choose from. I chose the Hampton Inn, and at the recommendation of the hotel clerk, Kailamai and I ate dinner at a nearby steakhouse called the Montana Club.

 
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