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       Miles to Go, p.6

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  “My goal is to make it around the block before the snow flies.”

  Angel was cutting meat from the chicken’s breast and said without looking up, “You’ll make it. You’re doing great.”

  I took another bite. “Do you have a neighbor named Nicole?”

  Angel abruptly looked up. “Why?”

  “A woman came by this afternoon looking for someone named Nicole.”

  “What woman?”

  “Just some woman.”

  “What did she look like?”

  “She was probably just a little older than us. She was nicely dressed and had long red hair.”

  “What did you tell her?”

  “I told her that Nicole didn’t live here.”

  Angel looked at me for a moment, then went back to her meal nearly as abruptly as she had stopped eating. “No, there’s no one here with that name. Would you like some more stuffing?”

  I looked at her quizzically, then handed her my plate. “Sure.”

  After dinner I convinced Angel to let me help her with the dishes after which she made popcorn and we went out to watch our movie. City Lights hadn’t arrived yet, so we jumped up to number seventy-five, Dances with Wolves, directed by and starring Kevin Costner.

  I had seen the movie before—twice, I think—but it had been more than a decade.

  McKale and I had watched it together. I remember that she cried at the end, which wasn’t all that surprising since she cried at Hallmark card commercials.

  Later that year the movie won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Much of the film was shot in South Dakota and Wyoming, two of the states I would pass through when I was walking again.

  Dances with Wolves is one of the longer movies on the top hundred list, nearly four hours in length, and Angel fell asleep long before it ended. As the credits rolled up the screen, I leaned forward and gently shook her. “Hey, it’s over.”

  Her eyelids fluttered, then she looked up at me as if unsure of who I was. Then she blinked a few times and her eyes widened. “Oh. Is the movie over?”

  “Yes.”

  She rubbed her eyes. “How did it end?”

  “The Indians lost.”

  “Thought so,” she said, standing.

  I took a deep breath, then without help lifted myself up from the couch. I still had to take a moment to catch my breath.

  “I could have helped you,” Angel said sleepily, barely stable on her own legs.

  “I know.” I started walking toward my room. “Good night,” I said.

  “Good night, Kevin.”

  I looked at her. “Kevin?”

  “Alan,” she said quickly.

  I grinned. “Sorry, I’m not Costner.”

  “Costner?” she asked, then nodded. “Oh right. Good night.”

  I woke in the middle of the night. My room was dark, and I rolled over to look at the radio-alarm clock on the nightstand next to my bed. 3:07. I groaned, then lay back, wondering why I had woken so early. Then I heard it, a soft, muffled groan. My first thought was that it was a tomcat outside my window, until I realized it was coming from inside the apartment.

  For several minutes, I lay still and listened. The noise sounded like crying. I pushed myself up and climbed out of bed, quietly opening my door. The sound was coming from Angel’s room. I walked over to her door and put my ear against it.

  Angel was sobbing, though the noise was muffled, as if she were holding a pillow against her face. The sound of her in pain was heart-wrenching. I stood there for a moment, wanting to comfort her but unsure of what to do. Maybe she didn’t want my help.

  After several minutes her sobbing decreased to a whimper, then faded altogether. I hobbled back to my bed, my mind filled with questions. The longer I was with her, the more I realized how little I knew her. The truth is, I didn’t know her at all.

  CHAPTER

  Eleven

  We’re all moons. Sometimes our dark sides overshadow our light.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  The next week passed quietly as I settled into my new routine. I noticed something peculiar about my emotional state. Somehow the change of setting helped me keep my mind off McKale, as if I could deceive myself that I was only away on a business trip, and she was home waiting for me. Or, maybe it was because there was nothing familiar in my surroundings to remind me of her. Either way, I welcomed the emotional respite.

  I walked a little further every day. And every day after my walk I studied my road atlas at length, marking it with a yellow highlighter pen, comparing roads and routes to best determine my next course.

  I decided that when my body and the weather permitted, I would walk east along Interstate 90 through Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, then head south into Yellowstone National Park, exiting the east gate on my way to Rapid City, South Dakota. My route was probably neither the shortest nor the easiest. I had been to Yellowstone as a child and I just wanted to see the park again.

  I didn’t plan my route past South Dakota for the same reason I hadn’t planned the first leg of my trip past Spokane: something my father had taught me. Whenever I got frustrated with a difficult task, my father would say, “How do you eat an elephant?” I’d look at him as if he’d lost his mind, then he’d say, “One bite at a time.” Rapid City, a little over 700 miles from Spokane, was my next bite.

  I talked Angel into letting me take over the cooking. Compared to Angel, I wasn’t much of a chef, but I could handle myself in a kitchen. In my previous life I was a better cook than McKale, who claimed that the only thing she could make in the kitchen were reservations.

  Our carousel of movies continued fairly regularly and our entertainment couldn’t have been more eclectic. The list took us from Westerns to classics to science fiction. In one week we watched The Gold Rush, Wuthering Heights, Ben-Hur, Forrest Gump, and The French Connection.

  I started having reservations about the American Film Institute’s rankings. Forrest Gump was a stretch for me, but—with all due respect to Dustin Hoffman—Tootsie?

  I never said anything to Angel about the night I had heard her crying. I figured that if and when she wanted to talk about what was hurting her, she would. But it made me wonder about her and her past, which I knew nothing about, and she remained stingy in sharing.

  Outside of her occasional bouts of moodiness, she was nothing but kind to me and spoke encouragingly about my progress. But underneath her veneer of hospitality there was a chasm of deep sadness and loneliness—emotions I understood all too well.

  What worried me is that I sensed the gap was growing, as if each day she took one step back from me and the rest of the world. I had no idea how to cross the gap or even if I should try, but I couldn’t help but worry about her.

  Ten days after being released from the hospital, Angel drove me back to Sacred Heart’s outpatient clinic so they could remove my stitches. While we were there, we dropped by the ICU to see Norma. Sadly, it was her day off.

  My muscle tone was slowly returning as my wounds healed, and by the end of my second week at Angel’s I could get off the couch or climb the stairs without considering either journal-worthy. I wasn’t about to compete in the Ironman, but for the time being, it was enough.

  On November 11, I reached my first major goal. I walked to the corner of our block, then turned south and walked to the end of the street. Even though Angel and I had driven past this corner on the way to her house, there was something different about encountering the place on my own legs.

  A Montessori school took up the back half of the block, and there were a few dozen young boys on the school’s backfield playing football.

  I stopped to watch them, lacing my fingers through the cold chain-link fence. The boys wore long navy blue jerseys with big white helmets that made them look like bobble-head dolls.

  I felt remarkably liberated to be outside and this far from home, and I took my time walking back. Walking around the block was a far cry from the twenty to thirty miles I’d be
en putting in prior to the attack, but it didn’t matter. Snows had already hit Wyoming and Montana, and the east entrance of Yellowstone was already closed to traffic. I wasn’t going anywhere soon.

  CHAPTER

  Twelve

  Angel’s landlord came to the door and asked for Nicole. What am I missing?

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  The first measurable snow in Spokane fell on the fourteenth. The snowfall was deeper than I had anticipated—nearly five inches—and the sidewalks were completely buried. The good news was that the weatherman said it would be gone by the end of the week.

  Instead of walking outside, I did some light calisthenics, then found an aerobics channel on television, which I followed along with at the lowest impact level.

  As I was exercising, I could hear someone going up and down the walks with a snow blower. I parted the curtains and looked out. An elderly man was clearing the walks. He wore a brown parka, a knit scarf, and a hunting cap with earflaps, which he had pulled down and tied under his chin.

  I thought he was a little old to be clearing the walks and, had I been able, I would have gone out and helped him.

  About a half hour later, as I was finishing my second workout, there was a knock on the apartment door. I opened it to find the elderly gentleman standing in the doorway, his hat and shoulders flocked with snow. “Hello, is Nicole in?”

  I looked at him quizzically. “No, Angel Arnell lives here.”

  His brow furrowed, then he said, “Oh, then is Angel here?”

  “No, she’s at work.”

  “I’m Bill Dodd, I own this place. I just need to do a quick look-through of the apartment.”

  I was a little apprehensive about letting a complete stranger into Angel’s apartment, especially after he had called Angel by the wrong name, but he looked harmless enough, and he had just plowed the walks. Besides, he smelled of Old Spice cologne. How bad could you be wearing Old Spice?

  “Come in,” I said, stepping back from the door. “I’m sure she won’t mind.”

  He stomped his feet off at the door then walked inside. He took less than ten minutes to look around the place. As he was leaving he asked, “What’s your name?”

  “Alan.”

  He took off one of his mittens and put out his hand. “Pleasure to know you, Alan.”

  I shook his hand. “Nice to meet you too.”

  “Would you mind telling Angel I came by? And tell her thanks for the get-well card. It made me laugh.”

  “Glad to.”

  He stopped outside the doorway. “She’s a great gal, Angel. I hate to see her go. I have some people interested in taking the place, but if she changes her mind, I’m more than happy to keep her. Wish I had more renters like her.”

  I was surprised by this news. “When does her lease expire?”

  “February first. She’s got a couple more months.” He put his mitten back on. “Goodbye.”

  “Bye.” I shut the door. “That’s weird,” I said aloud. Angel hadn’t said a word to me about moving.

  That night as we were eating dinner, I told Angel about the visit.

  “Your landlord came by today. He cleared the walks.”

  “Bill?”

  “I think that was his name.”

  “I love Bill. I don’t know why he insists on clearing the walks himself. He has plenty of money and he’s eighty-two years old.” She said grimly, “I think he’s trying to have a heart attack.”

  I looked up from my spaghetti. “You sound serious.”

  “I’m only half kidding. He lost his wife two years ago. I don’t think he wants to live anymore.”

  “I can understand that,” I said.

  She either missed my comment or ignored it. “He collects model electric trains. I’ve been to his house. His entire basement is one huge train track. It’s actually quite impressive. You’ll have to see it sometime.” She leaned forward. “So what did he have to say?”

  “He said ‘Thank you for the get-well card.’ And he also said that if you change your mind about moving he’s happy to keep the apartment for you.”

  “Oh.”

  I was hoping she would say more about the moving part, but she didn’t. I took another bite of spaghetti then asked, “Are you moving?”

  She hesitated. “When I first moved here, I wasn’t sure how long I’d be staying, so I only signed a six-month lease. I’ll give him a call on my lunch break tomorrow.” She went back to eating.

  “It’s kind of a weird coincidence,” I said, “but when I opened the door, he didn’t ask for you. He asked for Nicole.”

  Angel didn’t look up.

  “I just thought that was kind of strange,” I said, “after that woman came by the other day looking for—”

  She cut me off. “I don’t know any Nicole.” She took another bite of spaghetti.

  I looked at her for a moment then went back to my meal.

  When the silence became uncomfortable, she asked, “Did you walk today?”

  “No. I did aerobics off the television.”

  “Sweatin’ to the oldies?”

  “Something like that,” I said.

  “So, what movie are we on tonight?” she asked. I had become the expert on the list.

  “Sixty-nine. Shane.”

  “Is that the one about the Harlem detective?”

  I looked at her a moment, then smiled wryly. “That’s Shaft. Shane is a Western with Jack Palance.”

  “Close,” she said.

  We both burst out laughing. Nothing more was said that night about Bill or Nicole.

  CHAPTER

  Thirteen

  People aren’t wired to be alone. Even in the stressful population of prison, solitary confinement is still considered a cruel punishment.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I was eating breakfast the next morning when it suddenly struck me what was wrong with Angel’s apartment. There were no photographs. Not one. No snapshots of a mother, father, friend or sibling. There was no image of another human in the entire apartment.

  In fact, there was no evidence that this woman had any connection with humanity at all. That was true of her speech as well. In all our conversations she had never once mentioned family or friends, not even in anger.

  No, there had been one picture. I don’t know how I remembered this, but when I had stopped to help her outside Davenport, I remembered seeing a picture of a young boy hanging from her rearview mirror next to a crucifix.

  What kind of person lives her life like Eleanor Rigby, then invites a complete stranger to live in her home for an indefinite period of time? Or, was that precisely why she had invited me—so she would have someone to be with? Maybe. People need people. So where were they in Angel’s world?

  My questions about Angel were stacking up. Her crying at night, our conversation about death and her hope for oblivion, the coincidence of two people asking for Nicole—and Angel’s peculiar reaction when I told her. Who was Angel and why was I here?

  My intuition told me that whatever was bothering Angel had something to do with this Nicole woman, but I had no idea who she was. I didn’t even know her last name. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been paying attention when the woman who had come asking about Nicole had mentioned it. Why would I? At the time, the encounter meant no more to me than a wrong number.

  It occurred to me that perhaps others in the building might know something about her, so I decided to talk to them. I had my first chance that afternoon.

  I had increased my walking to twice a day. A little after 2 P.M. I was stretching in the foyer when I ran into one of Angel’s neighbors, the young woman I had passed coming out of the apartment on my first walk. She came slowly into the building with her head down. She jumped a little when she saw me. “You startled me.”

  “Sorry,” I said.

  “No, it’s just I hardly ever see anyone here.”

  “I know what you mean. It’s really quiet. Are all the apartments rented
?”

  “You wouldn’t know it, but they are. Bill doesn’t rent to anyone noisier than he is. So we’re all church mice.”

  “Bill the landlord?”

  “Yes.”

  I reached out my hand. “I’m Alan Christoffersen.”

  She shook my hand. “I’m Christine Wilcox. It’s nice to meet you. You’re in apartment three?”

  I nodded. “I just moved in with Angel a couple of weeks ago. Have you lived here long?”

  “Long for me. I’ve been here a couple years. I’m a senior at Gonzaga.”

  “I guessed you were a student by the backpack,” I said.

  “Standard uniform,” she said.

  “Two years,” I repeated. “So you probably know all the tenants here?”

  “Yes. But not well. Everyone pretty much keeps to themselves.”

  “Maybe you could help me. Was there ever a tenant here named Nicole?”

  Her brow furrowed. “Nicole? Not since I’ve been here. Why?”

  “A woman came by the other day looking for Nicole.”

  “Oh yeah, she left a note at my door. No. Not since I’ve been here. But you could ask Bill.”

  “Thanks. Maybe I’ll do that. It’s nice meeting you, Christine.”

  “My pleasure. Have a good run.” She reached into her pocket for her keys. “Oh, and say ‘hi’ to Angel for me. We keep threatening to get together, but every time I’ve come over, she doesn’t answer. I’m starting to think she’s avoiding me.” Christine unlocked her door and opened it. “Have a good day.”

  “You too.”

  She disappeared inside her apartment. I walked out the front door to start my walk.

  That night I made clam chowder for supper. While we were eating, Angel said, “May I ask you about your wife?”

  “Sure.”

  “What was she like?”

  I smiled sadly. “She was perfect. I mean, for me she was. I should say that she was perfectly flawed. We both lost our mothers at a young age, and neither of us had siblings, so we held to each other. Our broken edges fit. I can’t imagine loving anyone as much as I loved her.”

 
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