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       Miles to Go, p.9

           Richard Paul Evans
 
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  Nicole looked at me incredulously. “I can’t believe you just said that.”

  “Sorry. But it looks like roadkill.”

  “That was even worse,” she said.

  “I know, mincemeat is an acquired taste,” Christine said. “Don’t worry, I also make an apple pie to die for and a pumpkin pie that’s at least worth getting mugged for.”

  Nicole glanced over at me. “Worth getting mugged for.”

  “That must be some pie,” I said. “I’m sold. You’re in charge of pies. Then we’ll see you tomorrow around one?”

  “One. Thank you so much.”

  “Our pleasure,” Nicole said.

  I took Nicole’s arm and we went off to the store.

  They—“they” being the turkey experts—recommend a pound to a pound and a half of turkey per person, which meant a six-pound turkey should be plenty. But, since I’m partial to cold turkey leftovers, I selected an eight-pound bird. I also bought an entire gallon of eggnog, which Nicole thought was overkill. “No one’s going to drink it but you,” she said.

  “Everyone loves eggnog,” I said.

  “Not everyone,” she replied. “Some people have taste.”

  “Truce on the eggnog,” I said.

  “Truce,” she said.

  In addition to all the food we bought, we purchased other accoutrements of the season: scented candles, mistletoe, Christmas tree ornaments, and strings of Christmas tree lights. Through it all, Nicole was joyful.

  As I was looking through the produce section, she brought an ornate silver picture frame to show me.

  “What do you think?” she said. “I think it’s pretty. It’s sterling silver.”

  “It’s beautiful,” I said. “What’s it for?”

  “For Aiden,” she said.

  “Perfect,” I said. “It’s perfect.”

  Then she said, “I think I’ll get two. I think Bill would like one as well.”

  A few minutes later I asked Nicole, “Do you have any Christmas music?”

  “No.”

  “Do you have a stereo?”

  “I have a CD player and an iPod.”

  “That will do.” I purchased Christmas CDs by Burl Ives, Mitch Miller, and, of course, the Carpenters. As I showed the CDs to Nicole, I said, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Karen Carpenter?”

  “No.”

  “Really?”

  “I don’t look at all like Karen Carpenter. To begin with, I’m blond.”

  “Okay, so you’re a blond version of Karen Carpenter.”

  “I don’t look like her,” she said, throwing her hands up in the air and walking away. I followed her with our shopping cart.

  “I think you do,” I said to myself.

  I told Nicole to wait for me at the front door while I stopped at the video counter and picked up two movies. As I walked back, she tried to see the DVD cases I held in my hand.

  “What movies did you get?”

  “You’ll see.”

  “Tell me,” she laughed. “You’ll see,” I said.

  On the far corner of the strip mall was a Christmas tree lot.

  “We need a tree,” I said.

  “I get to pick it out,” she said. “It’s my house.”

  “Fair enough,” I replied.

  Nicole found a nicely shaped Douglas fir about 6 feet high. The man selling the trees—his name was Maximilian (but just call me Max)—was so passionate about his trees that I was almost surprised he was willing to part with them. In addition to our Douglas fir, we left with a profusion of unrequested and useless information about our purchase, including:

  • The Douglas fir is not really a fir tree.

  • The Douglas fir is one of the few trees that naturally grow cone-shaped.

  • The Douglas fir was named after David Douglas, some guy who studied the tree back in the 1800s.

  • The Douglas fir was voted the number-two overall Christmas tree in America, second only to the South’s Fraser fir, which, I assume, is a real fir tree.

  • Max only sells Douglas firs.

  Max tied the tree to the top of Nicole’s Malibu and we drove home. After we had carried in all the food and put it away in the fridge, I grabbed a steak knife to cut the twine and went out to get the tree.

  Our tree was gone.

  I couldn’t believe it. I shouted for Nicole from the porch and she came running outside.

  “What?”

  “Someone stole our tree.”

  “Right now?”

  “Right off the car.” I looked at her. “Who steals a Christmas tree?”

  “Well, it was a Douglas fir,” Nicole said, “the second-most-popular Christmas tree in the world.”

  I looked at her and grinned. “Do you think there’s a black market for Douglas firs?”

  “Huge market for stolen and kidnapped trees. We’ll probably get a ransom note any minute.”

  “Won’t our thief be surprised when he learns that it’s not even a real fir.”

  “Fake fir,” Nicole said. “It would be like stealing a diamond ring and finding out it was only a zirconia.”

  “It would be just like that,” I said.

  We both burst out laughing. Then we went back to the store for another tree. Max gave us his “friends and family” discount of ten percent off our second one.

  That evening we decorated the tree. After we finished, Nicole came out with the silver picture frame with a smiling photograph of her son. She set it on top of the television.

  “He’s a handsome kid,” I said.

  She smiled sadly. “Welcome back, son.”

  CHAPTER

  Twenty-one

  There can be no joy without gratitude.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  The next morning Nicole rapped on my door, then walked in. “Morning.”

  “Happy Thanksgiving,” I said.

  “Happy Thanksgiving to you. I called in sick to work again.”

  “How did that go?”

  “My boss wasn’t happy. I don’t think she was buying it.”

  “Did you try to sound sick?”

  “I did. But I’m not very good at it. I wonder if I’ll get fired.”

  “I think you should just quit.”

  “Why? It’s an important job.”

  “It is. But it depresses you.”

  “You’re right, but I can’t quit. I need the money. Besides, what do you do with a major in film studies? No, an uncompleted major in film studies.”

  “You could get a job at a theater. You could, like, sell popcorn.”

  She playfully hit me. “That will certainly pay the bills.”

  “We just need to find you a job with a little more positive energy.” I looked over at the clock. “And we’ve got a lot of cooking to do. When should we put the turkey in?”

  “Eight pounds, right?”

  “Yes.”

  “It will probably take three hours. I’d allow three and a half to four, just in case.”

  “That would be right now,” I said. “On it.” I climbed out of bed.

  Nicole began making rolls. She asked, “Were you planning on watching movies tonight?”

  “Yeah.”

  “Will you tell me now what you got?”

  “It’s a Wonderful Life …”

  “Good. A classic for Christmas. So why the mystery?”

  “… and Citizen Kane.”

  Her smile fell and she stopped kneading the dough. “Why did you choose that?”

  “You spent months creating a timeline I want to derail.”

  She looked at me for a moment, then went back to her rolls. “You’re very wise,” she said.

  “I think so,” I said.

  She threw a handful of flour at me.

  Bill the landlord arrived early (his Old Spice arrived a few seconds earlier), a little before noon. He was dressed up as if he were going to church, wearing a hat, suspenders, and a red polka-dot bow tie. He brought a box of cara
mels with walnuts and a bottle of Cold Duck.

  “Thank you for the invitation,” he said to Nicole, taking off his hat as he entered. “I wish you’d reconsider moving.” He turned to me. “Angel’s been my best tenant.”

  “I’ve decided to stay,” she said. “Just bring me a new lease.”

  “A new lease on life,” he said.

  She grinned. “You might say that. And you can call me Nicole.”

  He smiled. “I will be pleased to.”

  “We’re still making dinner,” she said. “Would you like to watch a football game on TV?”

  “No, I don’t care for that. If you don’t mind, I’ll just stay in here where the action is.”

  “We don’t mind,” she said.

  “Would you like some eggnog?” I asked.

  He waved his hand at me. “Don’t drink the stuff, I’m lactose intolerant,” he said.

  “Another glass for you,” Nicole whispered snidely.

  Christine knocked on our door at the appointed hour. She wore a bright holiday sweater with Christmas bauble earrings. Her apartment door was wide open. She asked me, “Would you mind helping me bring over my pies?”

  “Glad to,” I said. “How many did you make?”

  “Three. Apple, pumpkin, and … mincemeat.”

  “You made mincemeat just to spite me, didn’t you?”

  She smiled. “I like mincemeat.” Then she added, “And to spite you.”

  “I’m not carrying the mincemeat,” I said.

  We carried back the pies. Nicole gasped as we entered. “Those look fabulous.”

  “Thank you. I love to bake, I just don’t have anyone to bake for.”

  I looked at Nicole. “I think you two need to get together.”

  “We just did,” she said.

  “Hi, Bill,” Christine said, walking into the kitchen.

  “Hello, Chris,” Bill said. “Is that mincemeat?”

  “Yes it is.”

  “I love a good mincemeat.”

  Christine shot me a glance and Nicole grinned. “Looks like the mincemeat is beating out your eggnog,” Nicole said.

  I shrugged. “There’s no accounting for taste in some people.”

  “My thought exactly,” she replied.

  “So how does a diabetic handle a Thanksgiving feast?” I asked.

  “I’m not diabetic today.”

  “Really.”

  “Just kidding, but I’ll use more insulin. I know it’s not smart, but one day of the year … I’ll live with it.”

  A half hour later we finished our preparations and sat down to eat.

  “My, what a feast,” Bill said, looking over the table. “I haven’t seen a spread like this since June.” We knew he wasn’t talking about the month.

  “I’d like to pray,” Nicole said. She reached out and took Bill’s hand and mine. Bill took Christine’s hand and Christine took mine, completing the circle.

  Nicole bowed her head. “Dear Father, I am grateful this day for my friends and for Alan and his care. We are grateful for this food and for so much to be grateful for. We ask a blessing on those without and to be led to help them. Also, we are grateful for those who are missing from our lives. Amen.”

  “Amen,” I said.

  “Amen,” Bill and Christine said.

  “Before we eat,” Nicole said, “I would like to take a moment and say something, if that’s all right.”

  “Of course,” Bill said. “Speech, speech.”

  “Well, it’s not really a speech,” she said. “In better days my family used to always say one thing we were grateful for before we could eat. I’d like to do the same.”

  We all agreed.

  “Alan, would you start?”

  I looked around the table as all eyes turned to me. “Sure.” I sat up a little. “This is my first holiday without McKale. If you had asked me a year ago what I was most grateful for, I would have said McKale. If you asked me today, I’d say the same thing. I guess sometimes we’re lucky to have someone to miss so much.”

  Nicole smiled sadly.

  “I’m grateful to be here today with all of you, for this food and home. I’m grateful to be feeling so much better. Most of all, I’m grateful for Nicole, for taking care of me and encouraging me through it all. I don’t know how I would have made it without her. That’s it,” I said.

  Bill nodded thoughtfully.

  “I’ll go,” Christine said, turning to Nicole. “I’m grateful that you invited me to have dinner with you. I thought it was going to be another crummy Thanksgiving alone. Money’s kind of tight, so I won’t be flying home until school gets out. So I’m grateful to have friends to make me feel thankful.”

  “Amen,” Nicole said.

  “How about you, Bill?” I said.

  He looked down at his plate as he gathered his thoughts. Then he looked up at all of us, his eyes eventually landing on Nicole. “Since I lost my June, I’ve been pretty lonely. So I guess I’m a bit like Christine—I thought this was going to be another crummy day alone with my memories. Thank God there are people like you, Nicole, who would include an old man in your festivities.”

  “It’s been my pleasure, Bill,” Nicole said. She took a deep breath. “I guess it’s my turn. Last Thanksgiving I was in a hospital bed, alone and going through the most difficult experience of my life. This day I am grateful for all of you. You’ve said such kind things. You don’t know how much it means to me. I’m especially grateful that Alan came into my life at this time.” She took my hand. “I thought I went to the hospital to help you. I didn’t realize that it was for me. Thank you for not leaving me like everyone else did. Thank you for caring.”

  I looked deeply into her eyes. She continued. “Today I am mostly grateful for life. It seems we’ve all had tough years lately. I don’t know about you, Christine, but the three of us have all lost someone we’ve loved. But as hard as the last few years have been, I’m still grateful for them. I’m grateful for the good days I’ve had. There haven’t been too many of them lately, but I have hope that there will be more to come. I hope that’s true for all of us.”

  Christine’s eyes were beaming and Bill looked like he was getting emotional or about to. I raised my glass of eggnog. “Here, here.”

  Everyone else raised their glasses and we toasted.

  “Now let’s eat before we all die of hunger,” Nicole said.

  I stood to serve the turkey and we began dishing out the food.

  “Angel, would you please pass me the mashed potatoes?” Christine asked.

  “She’s going by Nicole, now,” Bill said.

  “Oh right. Sorry.”

  “Angel was a nickname,” Nicole said. “But I’m through with it.”

  I looked at her proudly.

  The meal was delicious and the conversation kept up, covering a broad range of topics from the origin of mincemeat to where we were when the Space Shuttle exploded.

  The sum of the day was truly greater than its parts. The four of us loners talked and laughed like old friends, like we hadn’t a care in the world. Maybe, for that moment, we didn’t.

  We all did the dishes, even Bill, who claimed that under his wife’s regime, KP was his job. When the kitchen was clean, Bill hugged Nicole. “Thank you.”

  “You’re not staying for the movie?”

  “No, I think I’ll just retire. But thank you for everything. It was a wonderful meal. I had a most enjoyable time.”

  “You’re very welcome,” Nicole said. “We should get together again.”

  His face lit. “I’d enjoy that immensely.”

  The three of us watched It’s a Wonderful Life. Christine spent most of the evening with us but left before the movie was over. She hugged both of us and set a date to go out with Nicole.

  Jimmy Stewart was on his knees begging for life when there was a knock at the door. Nicole stood. “Christine must have forgotten something.”

  “I’ll pause the movie,” I said.

 
That’s okay. I’ve already seen it a million times.”

  I glanced over as she opened the door. I couldn’t see who was in the hall, but I heard a man’s voice. Nicole said something then glanced back at me. “Alan, it’s for you.”

  “For me?”

  She took a couple steps toward me. “It’s your father.”

  CHAPTER

  Twenty-two

  My father came. No matter what he said, his search for me spoke louder.

  Alan Christoffersen’s diary

  I looked at Nicole in disbelief. “My father?”

  She nodded.

  I got up from the couch and walked to the door. My father stood in the hallway wearing his Los Angeles Lakers windbreaker. For a moment we just looked at each other. Then he stepped forward and threw his arms around me.

  “Son.”

  My father rarely hugged me and never in front of others, so it felt unnatural. He held me for nearly a minute before he released me, stepping back, his hands still on my shoulders. Only then did I see that his eyes were red.

  “Thank God you’re okay. When I learned that you had been stabbed …” He stopped, affected by emotion. He wiped his eyes with the back of one hand. “Are you okay?”

  “Much better than I was four weeks ago,” I said, my mind swimming with questions. “How did you find me?”

  “Falene called me.”

  His reply only raised more questions. Falene was my assistant at Madgic, my former advertising firm and the only employee who had remained loyal to me when Kyle stole the agency. After McKale’s death, when I decided to shut everything down, I had asked Falene to liquidate everything I owned and put the receipts in an account for me. I knew she had been busy—evidenced by the growing bank account—but I hadn’t spoken to her since I left Seattle.

  “How did Falene know where I was?”

  “She didn’t. She had been tracking your walk by your credit card transactions until they stopped just outside of Spokane. She became worried that something had happened to you, and she called me to see if I’d heard from you.

  “I’ve got to tell you, when she told me that you were walking across the country, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I didn’t even know you had left Seattle.”

 
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