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       Miles to Go, p.7

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  “That’s how it should be. I think it’s rare. Why are you walking to Key West?”

  “You want to know why I’m walking to Key West, or why I’m walking?”

  “Both.”

  “I chose Key West because it was far. I’m walking because after I lost McKale, I also lost my home, my cars, and my business. Walking away just seemed the prudent thing to do.”

  “Sometimes we need to run away,” Angel said, nodding as if she understood. “How did you lose your business?”

  “I was betrayed by my partner. While I was taking care of McKale, he stole all my clients and started his own firm.”

  “That’s reprehensible.”

  “I thought so.”

  “What’s his name?”

  “Kyle Craig,” I said slowly. “Never trust anyone with two first names.”

  “Do you hate him?”

  The question made me think. “I suppose so, if I think about it. But truthfully, I don’t think much of him and I don’t think that much about him. Dwelling on him would make him a bigger part of my life than I want him to be.”

  “That’s wise,” she said. She took another bite of soup, then asked, “Do you hate the kid who stabbed you?”

  “He’s dead. There’s no one to hate.”

  “A lot of people hate dead people.”

  “That’s true,” I said. I leaned back and gazed into her eyes. “Is there anyone you hate?”

  “I could name a few people.”

  “Anyone in particular?”

  She didn’t answer immediately, and when she did, there was a strange tone to her voice. “Probably me.”

  CHAPTER

  Fourteen

  As difficult as walking is to me these days, I still seem to have no trouble walking into trouble.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  Spokane’s second major snowfall came early in the morning on November 17. That afternoon I walked twice around the block with almost no pain, except when I almost slipped and caught myself.

  As I came back down the road to the apartment, I saw Bill, the landlord, pushing his snow blower up our sidewalk. I stopped on the walk near him, giving him a short wave. “Hi, Bill.”

  He cupped his ear.

  “Hi!” I shouted. When he got up to me, he bent over and switched off the snow blower. He was huffing from exertion and his glasses were frosted with snow. He wiped them with the back of his mitten. “What can I do for you?”

  “I’m Alan Christoffersen. We met a few days ago.”

  He gazed intently at me, as if trying to remember.

  “I’m Angel’s friend. Did Angel ever get back to you on the lease?”

  I could tell that he still wasn’t sure who I was. “No. Not yet.”

  “She says that she plans to.”

  “Well, tell her not to wait too long. I’ve got a bird in the hand.”

  “I’ll do that.” He started to bend over to restart his blower when I asked, “May I ask you something?”

  “You just did.”

  I ignored the comment. “A few days ago when you came by the apartment you asked for Nicole. Who is Nicole?”

  A grim look crossed his face. “I think that if Angel wanted you to know, she’d tell you herself.”

  “I’m trying to help Angel. I may be her closest friend.”

  He frowned. “If you were a close friend, you’d already know.” He reached down and pulled on the rope to start the blower. The machine roared to life on the first pull. I stepped out of the way as the old man stormed by in a cascade of snow.

  That evening Angel arrived home from work a little later than usual, and it was already completely dark out. It was obvious that she’d had another bad day, as she barely spoke to me. Moody again, I thought. Sitting down to dinner, I asked, “Are you okay?”

  She nodded but didn’t speak.

  “We’re on movie number sixty-eight, An American in Paris.”

  She didn’t respond. The only sounds from our meal were the clinking of fork and knife. Once again the silence became painful.

  The fact that she was avoiding eye contact with me made me wonder if the problem had something to do with me.

  Finally, I broke the silence. “Thanksgiving is only a week away. Do you have any plans?”

  “No.”

  “Do you want to go out?”

  “I don’t celebrate Thanksgiving,” she said. Back to silence. Halfway through the meal I gave up. “Okay, did I do something to offend you?”

  She slowly looked up, as if deciding whether or not to answer. Finally, she said, “I talked to my landlord this afternoon. He said that you talked to him.”

  “He was out clearing the walk.”

  “I would appreciate it if you would stay out of my personal affairs.” She stood up and walked to her bedroom. I sat there in a stupor. After a few more minutes I put our plates in the sink and went to my room. We both went to bed without another word.

  That night I woke again to her crying.

  CHAPTER

  Fifteen

  I can see clearly now. How could I have been so obtuse?

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  The next morning, for the first time since I’d arrived, I considered leaving. I wouldn’t be able to continue my walk, I wasn’t ready and neither was the weather, but I could always find someplace else in Spokane to stay.

  I looked through the phone book and found an extended-stay hotel just 2 miles from the house. Angel didn’t have a phone other than her cell phone, so I couldn’t call to check on vacancies, but at just 2 miles I thought I could make the walk.

  As I began to mentally plan my departure, I stopped myself. After all Angel had done for me, could I really just walk out on her? I knew I couldn’t. I was worried about her.

  I also still believed in the vision, that I was meant to meet Angel. Selfishly, I had assumed that meeting her was for my benefit, just like the other “angels” I had met so far on my walk, but now I realized that maybe I was sent here for her.

  It seemed to me that Angel was on a slope of sorts, and I didn’t know where or how far it fell. What I did know was that I, being the only one in her life, was probably her only hope. I decided to stay as long as there was a chance of helping.

  There hadn’t been any new snow for two days and the streets and walks were reasonably clear, so I decided to try my first long-distance excursion and walk with my empty pack 2½ miles to the outskirts of the suburb, then back, a journey of 5 miles in all.

  My walk started out well, at least for the first couple miles, but after that my thighs and calves were burning, not so much from the injury as from being out of shape. Even empty, the pack seemed heavier than I remembered. I was moving at a turtle’s pace when I arrived back on Nora Street, grateful to be home. On my way inside the house I stopped and picked up the mail. There was a postcard from the cable company marked RETURN TO SENDER.

  A Friendly reminder from Larcom Cable

  Dear Valued Customer,

  Your Larcom Cable account will expire in just 90 days.

  We value your business, so if you re-subscribe now we’ll bonus you two months of Spokane’s greatest entertainment value absolutely FREE. Plus, we’ll send you a coupon for a FREE large, 2-topping pizza from PIZZA HUT.

  This is a limited time offer, so act now to keep the excitement coming!

  Across the bottom of the card were scrawled the words Please cancel my account, I won’t be needing it.

  I checked the postage mark. The card had been sent just three days earlier.

  Angel came home late from work again, and I expected another night of uncomfortable silence. Instead, as soon as she walked in, she called my name. “Alan.”

  I walked from the kitchen to the hallway. She smiled sweetly when she saw me. “Hi.”

  Her complete change in temperament surprised me. “Hi.”

  “Do you want to go out tonight?”

  “I made dinner.”

  “Can we
freeze it? I’d like to take you out.”

  “All right,” I said, a little bemused.

  “How does Chinese sound? The Asian Star has fabulous potstickers and their walnut shrimp is life-changing.”

  “Say no more,” I said.

  We put dinner in the refrigerator, then drove immediately to the restaurant, which was near the university and crowded with students. After the waitress had taken our orders, Angel said, “I miss going to school. I love the energy.”

  “How long did you go?”

  “I had to drop out my junior year, when I …” She stopped mid-sentence. She looked down for a moment, then back up into my eyes. She looked soft, full of contrition. “I’m sorry I’ve been so irritable lately. You must feel like you’re living with a crazy woman.”

  “No,” I said. “But I’ve been worried about you. If I can do anything for you—if you need to talk, I’m a good listener.”

  “Thank you,” she said, but nothing more.

  I cleared my throat. “So, I’ve been thinking. I would really like to prepare Thanksgiving dinner.”

  “I don’t really celebrate Thanksgiving,” she said.

  “I know. But maybe you could make an exception, so I could thank you for all that you’ve done for me.”

  “You don’t need to do that. Besides, I have to work Thursday.”

  “We’ll eat when you get back.”

  She didn’t respond; rather, she looked quiet, as if suddenly lost in thought. Then she glanced up at me. “Okay,” she said, relenting. “That sounds fun.”

  “Thanksgiving it is.”

  After dinner we stopped by the video store for the next video on our list. They didn’t have the movie we were supposed to be watching, The Third Man, starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, but they did have number fifty-six: M*A*S*H.

  As a child I rarely missed the TV series spawned by the movie, but I had never seen the original with Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould.

  Not surprisingly, the movie was darker and edgier than the television series, with an antireligious agenda about as subtle as a mankini.

  About halfway through the movie there is a scene where Waldowski, the camp dentist, decides to commit suicide.

  Predictably, Hawkeye and Trapper John make a joke of it and offer Waldowski the “black pill,” which is actually harmless but which Waldowski believes will bring sudden death. At the scene’s climax (a spoof on da Vinci’s Last Supper) the group gathers for Waldowski’s death, and a soldier sings the movie’s title song: “Suicide Is Painless.”

  My own recent contemplations about life and death rendered the segment uncomfortable. I glanced over at Angel to see if she thought it was funny. To my surprise, she was crying.

  Suddenly, I understood what was going on. How had I missed the obvious?

  CHAPTER

  Sixteen

  If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I laid a pretty good stretch of asphalt today. I suppose I’ve done enough damage. It’s time for me to leave.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  The classic signs of suicide were all there, as glaring as a Las Vegas casino sign. The expiration of her lease and cable, her quiet, abiding sadness, her outspoken hope for oblivion. The surrendering of her possessions, like the sapphire necklace she’d attempted to give to Norma at the hospital. Her intentions were obvious—what I didn’t know was why.

  As the production credits rolled up the screen at the end of the movie, Angel switched on the lamp and stood. “Ready for bed?”

  “I’d like to talk,” I said.

  The gravity of my tone was not lost on her. She looked at me nervously. “It’s kind of late.”

  “It’s important.”

  She looked at me for a moment, then sat down on the sofa. “Okay,” she said, knitting her fingers together. “What do you want to talk about?”

  I moved closer to her and put my hand on hers. “I’m not sure how to approach this, so I’ll just say what’s on my mind. First, I want you to know that I care about you deeply. I am very grateful for all you’ve done to help me.”

  “I care about you too,” she said, her brows knit with anxiety.

  “Clearly. You’ve been very good to me. I also know that something is very wrong.”

  “I know it seems that way, but everything’s fine,” she said. “Really. I’ve just been a little emotional lately.”

  “Angel, it’s more than that.” I looked into her eyes, then slowly breathed out. “I need you to be completely honest with me. Who is Nicole?”

  She looked at me incredulously. “I told you to stay out of my affairs,” she said sharply.

  “I can’t help you if you’re not honest with me. Does this Nicole have something to do with why you’re so sad?”

  “You have no idea what you’re asking.”

  “You’re right, I don’t. But I want to know. I want to help. I think that’s why we were led to each other.”

  Her expression turned fierce. “We weren’t led to each other. There is no fate. There is no God. There is only chaos and chance. You’re here because of coincidence.”

  “I’m here because I stopped to help you and you knew you could trust me.”

  She began to cry.

  “I know why you came back to Spokane,” I said.

  “Enlighten me,” she replied angrily. “Why did I come back?”

  “You came home to die.”

  She just stared at me for a moment then stood. “Stop it.”

  “Angel—”

  “Leave me alone.”

  “No,” I said.

  “I made a mistake coming for you,” she shouted.

  “You found exactly what you were looking for.”

  “And what was that?”

  “Hope,” I said.

  She was quiet for a moment, then said, “What I do with my life is my business and mine alone.” She stormed off, stopping in the threshold of her room. “And don’t talk to me about hope. There is no hope. The only hope is oblivion.” She slammed the door behind her.

  From the couch I could hear her crying. I walked over to her door, then pressed my forehead against it.

  “I really do care, Angel.”

  “No one cares. Go away.”

  “You’re wrong.”

  “Go away, please.”

  I went to my room and lay on top of the covers. It was more than an hour before I fell asleep.

  Angel didn’t speak to me for the next three days. She came home late each night and went straight to her room. I tried to get her to talk to me, but all my attempts were met with hostility. I feared every day for her. Most of all, I feared she might hurt herself. I had failed in my quest to help her. I had more than failed—I felt like I had pushed her closer to the brink.

  By Tuesday afternoon I couldn’t stand the silence and tension anymore, and I was now sure that it wasn’t going to get better. Around three in the afternoon I made up my mind. For better or for worse, I was leaving.

  But not without saying goodbye. I owed her that. I packed up my things and waited for Angel to come home.

  CHAPTER

  Seventeen

  My father used to say that people are like books: unknown until they’re opened. Until Angel, I have never felt so illiterate.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I was sitting on the couch when Angel’s Malibu pulled up to the curb. My pack was full and leaning against the sofa. I stood as she entered the apartment. She froze when she saw me, then looked back and forth between my pack and me. “What’s going on?” she asked.

  I lifted my pack. “I’m leaving,” I said. “I was just waiting for you to come home so I could say goodbye.”

  “Why?”

  I walked up to her. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I’m sorry that things turned out the way they did. I would do anything to change it, except pretend things are okay.”

  She just looked at me, speechless.

  “I hope yo
u know that I didn’t mean to hurt you. I would never hurt you. You’re a beautiful soul.”

  She swallowed. “Where are you going to go?”

  “You don’t need to worry about that. You’ve done enough. I left some money on the table.” I leaned forward and kissed her on the cheek. “Good luck, Angel. I hope you find peace. I don’t know anyone who deserves it more.”

  As I walked to the door, her eyes welled up with tears. “Who will take care of you?”

  “I can take care of myself.”

  I stepped out into the hallway and she followed me out. “Then who will take care of me?”

  I looked at her. “No one, if you won’t let them. I’m not going to stay and watch you destroy yourself. I can’t. I care too much about you to do that.” I looked down and adjusted my pack, securing the waistband. When I looked back up, she was covering her eyes and crying.

  “Good luck,” I said.

  I walked out the front door of the building and down the stairs. There was a light snow falling, reflecting the dying sun in the cool twilight. Halfway down the walk I heard the door open behind me.

  “Alan.”

  I didn’t turn back.

  Then in a trembling voice she shouted, “I’m Nicole.”

  I stopped and turned around. Tears were streaming down her face. “I’m Nicole,” she said. She fell to her knees. “Please don’t leave me. You’re my only hope.” She dropped her head, her hands clenching her hair. “Please, help me.”

  I shrugged off my pack, then walked back as fast as I could to her. I knelt down and put my arms around her, pulling her into me. She put her face against my chest and wept.

  CHAPTER

 
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