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       Miles to Go, p.8

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  Eighteen

  If you plan to burst someone’s bubble, be sure to have both hands cupped beneath them.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  We were both covered in snow when I brought her inside and sat her on the couch. She cried for nearly fifteen minutes, then she went completely silent, occasionally whimpering or shuddering.

  When she could speak, she said in a strained voice, “You asked what I was going to do when I finished the movies. I was going to watch the last movie, then I was going to go out and eat whatever I wanted. A big banana split with caramel and whipped cream and a cherry.” She looked up into my eyes. “Then I was going to come home and overdose on insulin.”

  She said it so calmly that it took a moment for her plan to sink in.

  She continued, “It’s easy to kill yourself when you’re diabetic. No one would even know it was suicide. I’d just slip off into a hyperglycemic coma and be dead before anyone found me.”

  I rubbed my thumb over her cheek. “Why would you take your life?”

  “You don’t know my life.”

  “I know you.”

  “No. I’ve lied to you about everything. Even my name. Killing my name was the beginning of killing myself. Nicole was already dead to me.”

  “What happened, Nicole?”

  She put her head down. “You don’t want to know.”

  I put my hand under her chin and gently lifted it until she was looking into my eyes.

  She exhaled deeply. “My life fell apart when I was eighteen. I had just started college, with a film studies major.” She shook her head. “… There’s a useful career for you.”

  I squeezed her hand.

  “I was still living at home when my mother took a new job and got in with a different group of people. They changed her. She started hanging out with them after work, going to bars and clubs. She started coming home drunk. My dad just put up with it, thinking it was a phase. But it wasn’t. After a couple months she told my father that she wanted a divorce. Dad was devastated. He begged her to stay, but she’d already made up her mind. After twenty-two years of marriage, she treated him like a stranger. My father had always struggled with depression, so when she threw him out, he couldn’t handle it.” Her eyes welled up. “One night he took his life.”

  Nicole wiped her eyes. “That time is just a blur to me. Everything was in commotion. I stopped going to school, my sister ran off with her boyfriend, then my mother informed me that she was moving in with one of her friends so I’d have to find someplace else to live. I dropped out of school and got a job.

  “I wasn’t really qualified for anything, so I took the day shift at a Dairy Queen. That’s where I met Kevin. He was the owner. He was a lot older than me, almost fifteen years older.”

  She looked at me with a pained expression. “It seemed like such a good thing. He owned his own business. He had a house and a nice car. Most of all, he paid attention to me. I mean, I had to pay for it, he did whatever he wanted with me, but I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything. I just wanted someone to want me.

  “One night he told me that he was engaged to someone else, but he didn’t love her. He loved me.”

  Nicole wiped her eyes. “I knew it was wrong, I should have left him, but I didn’t. I was so afraid of being alone again. He asked me to marry him. I didn’t think about that other woman or how much it would hurt her. I didn’t even worry about his unfaithfulness. I just wanted him for my own, so I told him yes.

  “Kevin and his fiancée had already started making wedding plans when he called the engagement off. His mother, Barbara, was livid. She wouldn’t even acknowledge me.

  “A couple weeks before we got married, I was alone with Barbara when she cornered me and asked me what I was trying to do. I didn’t understand her question. I said, ‘I’m marrying your son.’ She said, ‘You cheated with an engaged man. You’re nothing but a tramp.’ I started to cry. I told her that I didn’t know he was engaged. She called me a liar. Then she said, ‘Are you stupid enough to think he really wants you? You’re just a little plaything for him. As soon as he tires of you, he’ll throw you out like yesterday’s garbage.’

  “Then she pulled out her checkbook and offered me five thousand dollars to leave and never come back. I couldn’t believe it. When I turned her down, she said, ‘Don’t think this is going to last. You’ll never be part of this family.’

  “From then on she did everything she could to make my life miserable. We got married, but it was one of the worst days of my life. Barbara didn’t say a word to me all day.

  “I thought she’d eventually accept me, but things only got worse. Every time Kevin spent time with her, he’d come home and give me the silent treatment. She’d poison him. I started begging him to stay away from her, but he just got mad and said I didn’t understand her and that I should be grateful for all she did for us.

  “She owned him, emotionally and financially. She owned the controlling rights to the Dairy Queen. Before we got married, I had to sign a prenuptial agreement relinquishing all claims to his money, or else, Kevin said, she’d force him out of the business and we’d be broke. I think I signed the agreement to prove to Barbara that I wasn’t a gold digger. I didn’t care about the agreement, I wasn’t after his money. I wanted to be loved. But it didn’t make any difference. She got it in her mind that I was trash and nothing was going to change that.

  “Then I got pregnant with Aiden. I thought having a grandchild would finally convince Barbara that I wasn’t going anywhere, but she worked even harder to break us up. She would bring women home to meet Kevin. Can you believe that? She’d actually bring women home to meet her married son. And there I was, pregnant and feeling unattractive. He’d say, ‘I’m married, Mom,’ and she’d roll her eyes and say, ‘For now.’”

  “How did you know she did that?” I asked.

  “Kevin told me about it. At first Kevin stood up for me—at least as much as he dared—but after Aiden was born, things changed. The truth is, Kevin didn’t want the responsibility of fatherhood and he blamed me for that. He stopped coming home. He’d go out playing cards and drinking with his friends almost every night.

  “I assumed they were all male friends until someone told me that they’d seen him with another woman.

  “After that we got into a fight, and he said that I’d gotten pregnant just to trap him. I said, ‘Trap you into what? We’re already married!’ He said, ‘For now.’

  “He apologized the next day, but you can’t really take that back. I had no one but my son. So I built my entire life around him.”

  Her demeanor changed and there was a faraway look in her eyes. “On his fourth birthday I picked him up early from preschool to take him to the zoo. We stopped at the Dairy Queen to get an ice-cream cone. Kevin was there and we got in another big fight. I was so angry that I grabbed Aiden and left.” She paused and her eyes welled up with tears. “I pulled out of the parking lot without looking. This car came out of nowhere. The police said the driver was going nearly eighty miles per hour in a forty-mile-per-hour zone.

  “He hit my car on the driver’s side, about a foot behind me, where Aiden was in his car seat. It killed Aiden instantly.” She began to sob.

  “I had to be pulled from the car by the Jaws of Life. I was cut all over. I had internal bleeding and more than twenty broken bones.” She looked down. “Unfortunately, they saved my life.”

  She was quiet for a while, unable to speak. When she could, I had to strain to hear. “While I was in the hospital, only two people came to see me. One was the mother of the man who was driving the car. He was killed in the crash. This woman blamed me. I lay there, unable to move, while she screamed at me. Finally, a nurse heard her and called security. They had to drag her out.

  “The other person was Barbara. She came to tell me that I had killed her grandchild and it was God’s punishment for stealing someone else’s husband. She said she wished that I had died instead.”

&nbs
p; My eyes welled up. “What did you say to her?”

  She looked up at me. “I said that I wished I had too.

  “I was still in the hospital when I got served divorce papers. My wrists were broken, the nurse had to open the envelope and read them to me.”

  She squinted, forcing a stream of tears down her cheeks. “I decided my life wasn’t worth anything, so I came back to Spokane to end it.

  “When I met you, I had just been to Seattle. I wanted to see the ocean again. I wanted to stand on Bullman Beach and feel the wind in my hair and listen to the waves. Do you know Bullman Beach?”

  I shook my head.

  “It’s near Neah Bay, on the west side of Olympic National Park.”

  “I know where that is,” I said. “I drove through there once. It’s beautiful.”

  “When I was seven, my family stayed there at a little inn on the beach. I was happy then. I wanted to see it one last time.” She exhaled deeply. “My mother had a nickname for me back then.”

  “What was it?”

  She looked up into my eyes. “Angel.”

  CHAPTER

  Nineteen

  We humans are born egocentric. The sky thunders and children believe that God is mad at them for something they’ve done—parents divorce and children believe it’s their fault for not being good enough. Growing up means putting aside our egocentricity for truth. Still, some people cling to this childish mindset. As painful as their self-flagellation may be, they’d rather believe their crises are their fault so they can believe they have control. In doing so they make fools and false Gods of themselves.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I held Nicole for more than an hour. She cuddled into me like a little girl seeking shelter, which might be close to the truth. At one point she began crying again, which she did for nearly twenty minutes before she fell silent. When she finally sat back up, she was soft and vulnerable.

  “Do you think God was punishing me?” she asked.

  I shook my head. “Aiden’s death wasn’t your fault. It belongs to the man driving that speeding car. But I understand your question, because, for a while, I wondered the same thing about McKale.

  “I had an employee who one day came into work crying. Her doctor had just informed her that she couldn’t have children. She said to me, ‘It’s because God’s punishing me.’ I asked her why God was punishing her. She said, ‘Because I haven’t been going to church.’ That very morning I had read an article in the newspaper about a drug addict, prostitute, who was arrested for putting her newborn baby in a Dumpster. I said to my friend, ‘You’re telling me that God won’t give you a baby because you missed church, but he gave a baby to that prostitute to kill?’ It doesn’t make any sense.”

  “Then you don’t believe God punishes us?”

  “I don’t know if He does or not. But I don’t believe in a God I can control,” I said. “It seems to me that He is much more interested in helping us than in condemning us. I believe that’s why when we’re in need, he puts people in our path. Think about it, doesn’t it seem peculiar that someone who understands what it means to lose everything ends up in your home exactly when you needed him most?”

  After a moment she said, “Yes.”

  “Just six weeks ago I was on my knees holding two bottles of painkillers and a bottle of whiskey, ready to end it all. And now here I am with you. It’s miraculous.”

  She looked down for a long time. “How do you live when you don’t want to live anymore?”

  How many times had I asked myself the same thing? I thought. “One day at a time,” I said softly. “One day at a time.”

  That evening we didn’t eat. We never even left the couch. I held Nicole until she fell asleep in my arms. I wasn’t strong enough yet to carry her, so I woke her and helped her into her room. I pulled back the covers, pulled off her shoes, then tucked her in bed with her clothes still on. I kissed her on the forehead, then went to my own room. I lay in bed replaying our conversation over in my mind. I wondered what Nicole would do in the morning.

  CHAPTER

  Twenty

  The first step of a journey is always the longest.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I woke a little after sunrise. I was contemplating the night before when there was a knock on my door. “Come in,” I said.

  Nicole stepped inside. She wore a robe and her hair was tousled.

  “I slept in my clothes,” she said, pulling a strand of hair back from her face. “But I don’t remember the last time I slept that well.” She looked at me, her eyes full of gratitude. “Thank you for last night.”

  “You’re welcome.”

  She sat down on the corner of my bed.

  “Are you going in to work?” I asked.

  “No, I called in sick.” She took a deep breath. “I have a big favor to ask of you.”

  “Whatever you need.”

  “Will you help me start my life over?”

  I smiled. “Absolutely I will.”

  “Where do I begin?”

  “We begin by bringing back Nicole.”

  She looked down for a moment. Then she took a deep breath and stuck out her hand. “My name is Nicole Mitchell. It’s nice to meet you.”

  “It’s a pleasure meeting you, Nicole,” I said. “Nicole needs a proper coming-out party. I say we start on Thanksgiving.”

  “Thanksgiving is tomorrow.”

  “Then we’ll have to find people who don’t have other plans. Do you know anyone who might be alone this Thanksgiving?”

  She thought about it for a moment. “Bill,” she said. “My landlord.”

  “What about Christine, your neighbor?”

  “We can ask,” she said.

  “One more thing Nicole needs to do,” I said. I looked at her seriously. “This won’t be easy.”

  She took a deep breath, steeling herself to what I would say.

  “Nicole had a son. A son she loved very much. Aiden needs to come back as well.”

  Her eyes watered. “How do I do that?”

  “You talk about him. You put up pictures of him.”

  She wiped her eyes. “Okay.”

  I just looked at her for a moment, then said, “Welcome back, Nicole.”

  She clasped my hand. Then she stood. “I better go get dressed. We have a lot to do before tomorrow.”

  A half hour later Nicole and I sat down at the kitchen table to construct our shopping list. I held the pencil.

  “All right,” I said, “we need a turkey and stuffing.”

  “Write down bread crumbs, celery, and onions,” Nicole said.

  “Got it. And we need a can of cranberry sauce and we need yams…”

  “I’m good at candied yams,” Nicole said. “I make the diabetic-death kind with brown sugar and pecans.”

  “You are definitely in charge of yams.”

  “Write down pecan halves and butter,” Nicole said.

  “How about rolls?”

  “I make awesome Parker House rolls.”

  “Fabulous. Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, candied yams, rolls. Gravy. I can actually make turkey gravy,” I said. “Do you have cornstarch?”

  “Yes.”

  “How many should we prepare for?” I asked.

  “At least three. Bill’s coming.”

  “You already called him?”

  “While you were showering. He was very excited.”

  “Okay, we’ll plan on four. Worst case we’ll have leftovers. I’ll be in charge of the turkey, stuffing, and gravy. Oh, and eggnog. We need eggnog. Everyone loves eggnog.”

  “Not everyone,” Nicole said.

  “You don’t like eggnog?”

  “Diabetes aside, no. You can have my glass.”

  I looked at her. “Really, Angel? You don’t like eggnog?”

  “Excuse me,” she said.

  “Eggnog is like the greatest drink ever.”

  “You called me Angel.”

  “No I
didn’t.”

  “Yes you did.”

  “Sorry. I won’t do it again.”

  “Better not,” she said.

  I went back to my list. “Okay, we’re still missing dessert.”

  “Pumpkin pie,” Nicole said.

  “Pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes. Do you say mashed or smashed?”

  “Mashed. ‘Smashed’ sounds like they got run over by something.”

  I looked over the list. “I think we’re ready.”

  “I’m not good at pies,” she said.

  “We can buy those.”

  “The bakery at Safeway is pretty good.”

  “Do you have potatoes?”

  “No.”

  “Do you have enough milk?”

  “I’ll check.” She opened the refrigerator. “Better get some more. Especially if you’re going to use some of it with your, gag, eggnog.”

  “You don’t need to disparage my eggnog,” I said.

  We put on our coats and started off. On our way out of the apartment we stopped and knocked on Christine’s door. She answered wearing sweat pants and a Gonzaga basketball T-shirt. She looked surprised to see us.

  “Angel,” she said. “And Steven…”

  “Alan,” I corrected.

  “Right, Alan. Sorry.”

  “And you can call me Nicole. Angel was just a nickname.”

  “Now I’m really confused,” she said.

  “It doesn’t matter what you call us,” I said. “We came to invite you to our Thanksgiving feast tomorrow at one.”

  A smile crossed her lips. “Really?”

  “If you don’t have other plans.”

  “I don’t.” To our surprise her eyes began to well up. “Sorry,” she said, furtively wiping them. “I just thought I was going to spend the day alone. Thank you.”

  “Well, we’d love to have you.”

  “What can I bring?”

  “Just yourself,” Nicole said.

  “I make really delicious mincemeat pies.”

  “Good mincemeat is an oxymoron,” I said.

 
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