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       Miles to Go, p.3

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  “Really? Am I in there?”

  “Of course.”

  “I wish that I had kept a journal,” she said. “In high school I had a friend who kept one. She used to write lies in it.”

  “She’d lie in her journal?”

  “She said that when she was old and couldn’t remember anything she could read her journal and think she had a great life.”

  I grinned. “There’s a certain logic to that.”

  “I suppose.”

  “I used to write copy for an advertising agency. So I guess I’m not so different from your friend.”

  This interested her. “Really? I’ve always wanted to be a writer.”

  “What kind?”

  “I want to write screenplays. I’ve actually started one.”

  “What’s it about?”

  “It’s still rough, but it’s about a woman who is betrayed by her husband and friends, so she fakes her own death and takes on a new identity.”

  “That sounds intriguing.”

  “I have the first half finished. I just can’t come up with a good beginning. Something catchy, you know?”

  “I’m an expert at catchy. That’s the domain of the ad guy—thirty seconds to own you. How about something like this—‘Even though the police dug in my backyard all afternoon, they didn’t find a single body.’”

  She laughed. “That’s compelling. But what if my character doesn’t have any bodies in the backyard?”

  “Everyone has bodies,” I said.

  I noticed a slight twinge.

  A half hour later Norma came into the room holding a long white strap with a silver buckle. “Well, Mr. Alan, I have good news and good news. Which do you want first?”

  “Surprise me.”

  “First, I heard you were looking for this.” She handed me the chain with McKale’s ring.

  I eagerly reached for it. “Thank you.”

  As I strung the chain around my neck, she said, “The other good news is—you passed your CT scan.”

  “Do I get a diploma for that?”

  “You get something better. You get to walk.” Then she added, “If you can.”

  “What do you mean, if? I’ve walked more than three hundred miles in the last two weeks.”

  Norma rested her hands on her hips. “Considering your wounds, it might not be as easy as you think. What you went through is like having a couple nasty C-sections. So let’s make your first goal something attainable, like to the bathroom.”

  “Followed by a victory lap around the hospital,” I said.

  “We’ll see.” She laid the long white strap on my bed.

  “What’s that?” I asked.

  “It’s a gait belt. In case you fall.”

  I grinned at the idea of her holding me up, as she was half my size. “You’re going to keep me from falling?”

  “I’m stronger than you think. So, can you sit up?”

  I thought it a funny question. “Of course.” I pushed my elbows down on the bed and lifted my chest. Pain shot up through my abdomen, taking my breath away. I blanched. “Oh.”

  Norma looked at me knowingly, as if she was restraining an “I told you so.”

  “That hurt a bit more than I thought it would,” I said.

  Norma asked, “Can you swing your legs over the side of the bed?”

  As I shifted my body, I realized just how dependent my legs were on my stomach muscles. Walking wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. In one fateful night my goal had changed from Key West to the bathroom door. It took me a couple of minutes before I could dangle my legs over the side.

  “Good. Now hold there for a moment.” Norma got some slippers from my closet and brought them over. She knelt down and put them on my feet, clamped off my catheter, then stood. She put the gait belt around my waist and fastened it. “Are you ready?”

  I nodded. “Yeah.”

  “Now slowly slide forward, putting your weight on the balls of your feet.”

  I pushed myself closer to the side of the bed, pulling my hospital gown down over my thighs. When my feet touched the floor, I began to lean forward. Incredible pain shot through my body, like jolts of electricity. “Ah.” I took another deep breath. I was truly surprised by the intensity of the pain. The bathroom now looked a mile away.

  “Not ready for the victory lap yet?” Norma said.

  I took a deep breath. “That … hurts.”

  “Do you want to continue?”

  “Yes.”

  “We’ll try just a few steps this morning. Baby steps.” She looked at Angel. “Can you give me a hand?”

  Angel stood. “What do you want me to do?”

  “Let him lean on your shoulder a little.” She turned to me. “We’re going to help you stand.”

  Both of them put a hand behind me as I put my arms around their shoulders. “Ready?”

  “Yes.”

  “Let’s go.”

  I slid to the edge of the bed. My eyes watered with the pain and I lightly groaned.

  “Just take it easy,” Norma said. “We’re in no hurry.”

  “I am,” I said. I clenched my jaw, then leaned forward until I was standing. They both took their hands away from me but remained close.

  “How do you feel?” Norma asked.

  “Like I’ve been cut in two and taped back together.”

  “That’s a fairly accurate description.”

  I took a small step with my right foot—actually more of a shuffle than a step, maybe 6 inches. I paused, then moved my left foot up to my right foot. This is bad, I thought.

  “That’s good,” Norma said. “You did it. Now try another.”

  I shuffled forward again, feeling like an old man. I was halfway to the bathroom when I began to wonder how I was going to make it back to the bed. “I think I better go back.”

  “Let’s try turning around,” Norma said.

  I shuffled in a circle until I was facing the bed. Three days ago I was measuring my walks in miles. Now I was counting steps. Eighteen of them and I was exhausted. I walked back to the bed, turned around, leaned against the side of the bed then lay back. Mercifully, Norma lifted my legs onto the mattress.

  “You did great,” Norma said. “That was a great start.”

  “There was nothing great about that,” I said.

  “Sure there was,” she replied. “You’re just more damaged than you thought.”

  Up until that moment I had been in a state of denial, telling myself that in spite of my doctor’s warning, I was going to grab my backpack and walk out of the hospital. The reality was, I was going to have to go through an extended period of recovery. The thought painfully reminded me of McKale’s weeks of hospital rehabilitation after her accident.

  “I know it doesn’t seem like much, but your stomach muscles were severed. It’s going to take a while before you’re back at it.”

  At that moment I was filled with anger at everything that had grounded me: my body, the Hilton that had no vacancies, the gang, and especially the kid with the knife who was somewhere on my floor of the hospital. Languishing in a hospital bed wasn’t part of my plan. Hadn’t I already suffered enough?

  To make matters worse, the seasons had already been stacked against me. I had planned to cross through the Idaho panhandle, then Montana and Wyoming, and with some luck, make it out of the mountains before the heaviest snows hit and closed the highways. That hope was gone. By the time I was walking again, the roads would be impassable. Like it or not, I was grounded until spring.

  After Norma left the room, Angel sat down again, scooting her chair closer to me. “Are you okay?”

  “What do you think?” I snapped. “Walking was the only thing I had. Now I’m going to be stuck in this godforsaken place until spring.”

  She looked at me, her face showing hurt. “I’m sorry.”

  I looked at her and sighed. “No, I’m sorry. It’s not your fault. I’m just upset.”

  After a few minutes of silence she
said, “Maybe I’ll go do my grocery shopping. Do you need anything from the store?”

  I couldn’t believe how kind she was being after I’d just yelled at her. “Pop-Tarts,” I said.

  “Pop-Tarts?”

  “Strawberry Pop-Tarts.”

  “Pop-Tarts it is. I’ll bring some tonight.”

  “You’re coming back tonight?”

  “If it’s okay with you.”

  “I don’t know why you’d want to.”

  “I like seeing you,” she said. “Do you play cards?”

  “Texas Hold ’em, Hearts, and Gin Rummy.”

  “I’ll bring some cards.” She stood. “See you tonight.”

  “Angel, I really am sorry.”

  “Don’t worry about it. I’d do the same thing.” She touched my arm, then walked out the door. After Angel left, I lay back in my bed, thinking about her. She really was kind.

  Later that afternoon Norma came back in. “I brought you something,” she said, holding up a piece of paper.

  Affectus, qui passio est, desinit esse

  passio simulatque eius claram et

  distinctam formamus ideam.

  I looked at the sign without comprehension. “I don’t read Latin.”

  “Actually, neither do I. It’s from the philosopher Spinoza. It says, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘Suffering ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear picture of it.’ My father gave me this a few years back when I had a stillborn baby. It’s helped me to get through it. I know you’re in a lot of pain and you’re frustrated. But this will pass and before you know it you’ll be walking again. I promise.”

  I looked at the paper. “Would you mind hanging it up?”

  “I’d be glad to. I’ll go find some tape.” She left the room.

  Suffering ceases to be suffering when we form a clear picture of it. I wondered if that was the reason I felt so compelled to write in my journal.

  When she came back, she taped the sign on my closet door. “How’s that?”

  “Perfect.”

  “Ready to walk again?”

  “Sure.”

  I clenched my teeth as I moved my feet to the side of the bed, then slid forward. The pain felt worse this time. Norma fastened the gait belt around my waist.

  “Okay, take it easy. One step at a time.”

  I took in a deep breath, then took a step, met with searing pain. I paused, then took another. The same. I took a third, then stopped. “I can’t do it.”

  “You’re still sore from this morning,” she said softly. She put my arm around her shoulder and slowly helped me back. I sat back and she lifted my feet onto the bed. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

  I closed my eyes and sighed.

  “Hey, you’ll get this. Before you know it, you’ll be running marathons.” She patted my leg. “My shift is over. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  After she left, I tried to form a clear picture of my suffering. It didn’t make the pain go away.

  Angel returned around seven. She was wearing a long navy blue wool coat and was carrying a plastic grocery sack from which she brought out two boxes of Pop-Tarts. “I got your Pop-Tarts,” she said. “I didn’t know if you wanted the frosted kind or plain, so I got you both.” She set the boxes on the table next to my bed.

  “Thank you.” I opened the box with the frosted pastries and took out a package, opening the wrapper with my teeth. I handed a Pop-Tart to Angel. “Want one?”

  “Sure.” She took the pastry. Then, as she walked to the other side of my bed, she noticed the quote Norma had taped to the closet door. “What’s this?”

  “It’s something Norma brought in.”

  She squinted as she read it. “Emotion, which is suffering, stops … no … ceases to be suffering when a clear and distinct idea is formed.”

  “You read Latin?” I asked.

  “Almost,” she said. “I had classes in high school.” I noticed that she made no comment as to the message or its meaning. She took her coat off.

  “Your family must wonder why you’ve been gone so much lately,” I said.

  “There’s no family,” she said. “Just me.”

  “Well, then your friends must wonder what you’re up to.”

  A sardonic grin crossed her face. “No one’s filing a missing person report, if that’s what you mean. I’m kind of a loner.”

  I looked at her quizzically. “I never would have pegged you for a loner.”

  “Why is that?”

  “You’re a very friendly, kind person. It doesn’t add up.”

  “I could say the same about you.”

  “Things happen.”

  “Exactly,” she replied. “Things happen.” She looked at me for a moment. “I was thinking about the ring you were looking for. Did you lose your wife?”

  “Yeah.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Me too.”

  She put her hand on my arm. “I know this is a dumb question, but is there anything I can do?”

  “I wish there were.” After a moment I asked, “Have you ever been married?”

  She hesitated. “No.”

  “Are you from Spokane?”

  “I was born here. But my family moved to Minnesota when I was eight. I got a job offer a few months ago and decided to move back.”

  “So what’s it like being a police dispatcher?”

  She shrugged. “It’s not dull, but it’s depressing. Seems all day long I witness the worst of mankind.”

  “I never thought of that. Where in Minnesota are you from?”

  “Near Lake Minnetonka in Wayzata.”

  “I’ve never been to Minnesota. I hear it’s beautiful.”

  “It’s cold,” she said shortly. “Very cold.”

  From her expression I guessed that she wasn’t just talking about the weather.

  CHAPTER

  Six

  In college I took a social psychology course, something I thought useful for a career in advertising. Psychologists tested the story of the Good Samaritan. What they learned gives us reason to pause. The greatest determinant of who stopped to help the stranger in need was not compassion, morality, or religious creed. It was those who had the time. Makes me wonder if I have time to do good. Apparently, Angel does.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  Early the next morning I was reading the newspaper when Norma walked into my room with her chart. I was testing my legs as I read, lifting one at a time and holding it for as long as I could, which, pitifully, could be measured in microseconds.

  “Hi,” she said. She looked a little stressed.

  I set down the paper. “How are you today?” I asked.

  “Fine. The $100,000 question is, how are you?”

  “Still here.”

  “Did you hear …?” she hesitated. “The boy died.”

  “Who?”

  “The boy who stabbed you.”

  I shook my head. “No.” I wasn’t sure how to respond. I wasn’t even sure what to feel. Revenge, justice, pity, sadness? The truth is, I didn’t feel anything.

  After a moment she said, “The doctor will be in to see you this afternoon.”

  “Will she tell me when I can go?”

  “I think so.” She checked one of my monitors, then asked, “Are you ready to try to walk again?”

  “Sure,” I said.

  “I’ve got a few other patients I need to see, then I’ll be back.” She walked out.

  I lay back and sighed. I wasn’t feeling any better than I was before.

  A half hour after breakfast Norma walked back into my room holding the gait belt. “Let’s do this.”

  She clamped off my catheter, then I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the bed a little too quickly. I clenched my teeth with pain.

  “Just a moment,” Norma said. “Before you try again, I want to ask you something.”

  I looked at her expectantly. “Yes?”

  “Why do you want to walk? What’s your nu
mber-one reason?”

  “So I can take out this”—I restrained from swearing—“catheter.”

  She looked at me thoughtfully. “Angel told me that you’re walking to Key West. Is that true?”

  “I was trying.”

  “There’s got to be a story there.”

  I looked down for a moment. Then I said, “In the last month I’ve lost my wife, my home, and my business.”

  Her expression changed. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” She gently touched my arm. “So that’s why you’re walking.”

  “Walking is what’s been keeping me going. Without Key West, I have nothing.”

  She nodded slowly. “Don’t forget that. Now let’s walk.”

  I again set my feet on the floor and began to shift my weight. Actually, the pain wasn’t as severe as it had been the day before. “I’m ready,” I said.

  Norma grabbed my arm as I forced myself to my feet, bracing against the pain. I took a step forward. Pain again seared through my body, but somehow it lacked the severity of before. I can handle that, I thought. I took another step, paused, then took another. “I can do this,” I said.

  “I know you can,” Norma said.

  I took six more steps, then stopped. Either the pain had relaxed or my determination had grown sufficient to match it. I took a few more steps, then reached out and grabbed the bathroom’s handle.

  Norma smiled. “You did it.”

  I took a deep breath. “Now, let’s see if I can make it back.” I slowly turned around, then, without pausing, walked to the bed. Norma clapped.

  When I was lying comfortably in bed, I asked, “Would you take my catheter out now?”

  “Gladly.” She shut my door, then put on latex gloves, pulled aside my gown, and removed my catheter.

  “Finally,” I said.

  “You earned it.”

  As she was taking off her gloves, I said to her, “How did you know to ask me why I wanted to walk?”

  “It’s my experience that if you focus on the why, the how takes care of itself.” She walked over and touched me on the arm. “I’m proud of you. I knew you could do it. I’ll check on you again before my shift ends.” She started to the door.

  “Norma?”

  She turned back. “Yes?”

  “Thank you.”

 
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