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Authors: Richard Paul Evans

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BOOK: The Mistletoe Inn
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My father was carving the turkey with an electric knife when the doorbell rang. “That must be Chuck and Joel. You mind getting that?”

“No problem.” I walked to the front door and opened it. The men standing in the doorway didn't look like I thought they would, as I was expecting two of my father's Vietnam buddies. They weren't. One was much older than my father. He was short and had an exaggerated potbelly. He was also
blind, which I could tell because his eyes were milky white. The other man was closer to my age, maybe a few years younger. He was cute with thick, curly black hair and the rugged square jaw of a marine. He leaned on a crutch as he was missing his right leg and left forearm.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” I said. “Please come in.”

“Thanks, ma'am,” the younger man said.

“Gentlemen,” my father shouted from the kitchen. “Come on in.”

“You must be mistaken,” the old man said, laughing. “There's no gentlemen here.”

My father walked out of the kitchen to greet them. “Sorry, just carving the bird. Come in, come in.”

The older man held on to the stump of the younger man's arm as they walked into the house.

“It smells like heaven,” the older man said.

“You're not going to leave hungry,” I said.

“Who is this lovely young woman answering your door?” the old man asked.

“And all this time I thought you were blind,” my father said.

“I can't see,” he said. “But I'm not blind.” He turned toward me. “I'm Chuck, young lady.” He reached out and I gave him my hand. He took it and kissed it. “Thank you for letting an old man crash your party.”

“It's our pleasure,” I said.

“I'm Joel,” the other man said, extending his hand. “I really appreciate the invitation. I'm stuck here in rehab for a little while. It's nice to get out on a holiday.”

“Come sit down,” I said. “We're just finishing up.” I led them over to the table. “Sit wherever you'd like.”

“You better show me where,” Chuck said.

“Sorry,” I said. I pulled out a chair and led his hand to the back of it. “You can sit right here.”

“Thank you, little lady.”

“Can I get you something to drink?” my father asked the men. “Wine? Beer?”

“I'll have some wine,” Joel said.

“None of that fancy stuff for me,” Chuck said. “I'll take a Bud if you got one.”

My father brought over a can of beer and a glass of white wine. “It's probably sacrilege for an Italian not to serve a Chianti, but I'm supporting the local economy. This vino is called Serenity, it's from the Sanders Winery in Pahrump.”

Joel took a sip. “It's good. Thank you.”

“It's got a touch of pear and sweet jasmine,” my father said, walking back to the kitchen. “I rather like it.”

“You talked me into it,” Chuck said. “You could be a pitchman for the stuff. I better try some.”

“How about you, sweetie?” my father asked. “A little vino?”

“I'll have a glass,” I said.
Or maybe the bottle
, I thought.

My father poured two more glasses of wine and carried them over to the table, then retrieved the cloth-lined basket of rolls and brought them over as well. “Hot from the oven. We've got everything but the turkey.”

“Don't hold back on the bird,” Chuck said. “It's not Thanksgiving without the bird.”

As my father brought the platter over, Chuck raised his nose and breathed in the aroma. “Oh, that is heaven,” he said. “I'm drooling like one of ol' Pavlov's canines. Let's eat.”

“After we say thanks,” my father said. He took my hand and Joel's shoulder. The rest of us took the hands of those next to us. “Kim, will you say grace?”

“Thank you,” I said. I bowed my head. “Dear Lord, we are thankful for this day to consider all we have to be grateful for. We are grateful for this food and the abundance of it. We are grateful to be together . . .” Suddenly I could feel emotion rise in my throat. “Bless our health. Amen.”

“Amen,” everyone said.

“Let's get eating,” my father said. “White meat is on the side closest to you, Chuck, dark on the other.”

“I like them both. You mind dishing up for me, dear?” he asked me.

“Not at all. What would you like?”

“A little of everything,” he said. “To begin with.”

I dished up his plate and set it in front of him and he again breathed in deeply. “I have died and gone to heaven. Those are real mashed potatoes, aren't they? Not the fake, pearl kind.”

“I mashed them myself.”

“And the corn. Is it hand shucked?”

“What?”

“It's a line from a Bill Murray movie,” Joel said, smiling. “Don't answer him. It will just encourage him.”

“And is that divine smell pecan-crusted sweet potatoes?”

“You can smell that?”

“Oh yes. When my eyes went, my nose took over. I can almost read with my nose.”

“Chuck's been in the veterans hospital for about three months,” my father said. “He's waiting for a liver transplant.”

“That's why I got this funny belly,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “It's called ascites. It's caused by buildup of fluid in the abdomen. They pump it out, and it comes back a week later.” He turned toward my father. “You know, it occurred to me the other day that I might finally be getting old.”

“You're only as old as you think you are,” my father said.

“I think I'm four hundred years old.”

“How long do you have to wait?” I asked.

“Probably a month after I die,” he said. “At my age, I'm not exactly a high priority on the donor list. And it is the VA.”

His last comment especially bothered me. “Where's your family?” I asked. I immediately regretted the question as a look of pain flashed across his face.

“They can't be bothered with an old man like me.”

There was an awkward silence. I took a sip of wine, then said, “My father said you served in the Korean War.”

“No,” he said. “It wasn't a war. It was a police action. That's what Truman called it.”

“But you served in Korea,” my father said.

“Yes, sir.”

I turned to Joel. “And you served in Iraq?”

“Yes. Iraq and Afghanistan. Afghanistan is where the war ended for me. Our Humvee drove over an IED. I was the
lucky one. I lost a few body parts, but everyone else lost their lives.”

Lucky
hadn't crossed my mind. “You're from Vegas?”

“Originally I'm from Huntsville. But my wife and I lived here with her mother before I left for Iraq.” His face fell. “But we're getting divorced.” I could see the pain saying this brought him. “She filed for divorce when she found out that all of her husband wasn't coming back.”

“I'm so sorry.”

“I mean, I can see how it would be hard. I lost more than my limbs.” He hesitated. “It's not what she signed up for.”

“You're being too kind to her,” I said.

He looked me in the eyes. “I've seen a lot of hurt in this world. Can you be too kind?”

I couldn't answer.

Joel took a deep breath. “Anyway, I'm thankful that we didn't have any children before I left. Way things came down, that would have messed them up either way, you know? Half of their father comes home.”

“I'm sorry,” I said.

He forced a smile. “So your father says you don't live in Vegas.”

“I've been living in Denver for the last three and a half years.”

“It's too cold in Denver,” Chuck said. “That's why they call it the Mile High City.”

“They call it the Mile High City because it's a mile above sea level,” my father said.

“That too.”

“I read that the high in Denver yesterday was six degrees,” I said. “There were five-foot snowdrifts.”

“That's inhuman,” Chuck said. “Like back in fifty in Pusan. The ground was so frozen we had to light flares just to plant tent stakes. Could I have some more of those sweet potatoes? And a little more corn bread stuffing?”

“Of course,” I said, taking his plate. As I returned it Joel said, “Your father told us that you're an author.”

“I'm an
aspiring
author,” I said. “My day job is doing the paperwork at a car dealership.”

“What dealership?” Chuck asked.

“Lexus.”

“Lexus makes a fine car,” he said. “I always wanted one of their little sports cars, but couldn't swing it.”

Joel continued. “So have you written some books?”

“One. It still needs to be edited. I'm trying to find a publisher, or an agent, but I keep getting rejections.”

“I hear that happens to all writers,” Joel said mercifully. “A few weeks ago I saw this author on PBS. He said he had a collection of dozens of rejection letters. After he sold his first million books, he wrote each of the publishers who had rejected him and sent them a copy of the
New York Times
bestseller list with his book at number one and a letter telling them how much money they had lost so far. Then he had all his rejection letters framed.”

“I'm still working on my collection,” I said.

“What's your book about?”

“It's a holiday romance about this lonely woman who meets a man who is dreading going to all his holiday events
alone, so he asks her if she would like to pretend to be a couple.”

“Pretend?” Chuck asked.

“Yes. They're the only ones who know their relationship's not real.”

“And they fall in love?” Chuck said.

“It's a love story,” my father said. “Of course they fall in love. If it was a thriller, they'd shoot each other.”

“It sounds interesting,” Joel said. “I'd read it.”

“You'd read a romance?” I asked. “I see you as more of a Brad Thor or Lee Child reader.”

He smiled. “Actually, I do like a good thriller, but I'm open to other genres. If a writer's got a good style.”

“She's got a great style,” my father said. “She's going to a writers' conference in a couple weeks. She'll get a chance to meet some agents and hopefully sell her book.”

“That's really great,” Joel said. “I hope things work out.”

“I don't know if I'm really going,” I said. “I mean, I looked at it, but it was kind of out of my price range.”

“She's going,” my father said.

I didn't say anything.

“Well, it sounds like a lot of fun,” Joel said. “When you have your first book signing, I'll be the first in line.”

“You're very sweet,” I said.

“The truth is, you could sell books just from your author photo. You're very pretty.”

I was a little taken aback. “Thank you.”

There was an awkward silence. Joel blushed, then said, “I'm sorry, ma'am. I didn't mean to embarrass you.”

“No. That was very sweet.”

He still looked embarrassed. “I can't believe I put my foot in my mouth when there's all this delicious food I should be eating instead.”

“What can I get you?” I asked.

“Well, I'd give an arm and a leg for some more of that sweet potato casserole.”

The whole table went quiet. Then he suddenly laughed. “Wait, I already did.”

What a beautiful man
, I thought.

“Best Thanksgiving dinner I've ever had,” Chuck said, patting his stomach.

“You're being kind,” my father replied.

“Since when has anyone accused me of that?” he asked. “You know me, I'm old enough to speak the truth. My first wife was a horrible cook. The second one wouldn't cook. I don't know which was worse.”

Joel and I smiled at each other.

“I'll get some coffee,” my father said. “Any takers?”

“I'd like some,” Joel said. “With a little milk.”

“Me too,” I said.

While my father made the coffee I brought the pies over to the table.

“What'ya got there?” Chuck asked. “It smells like pies.”

“Right again. Pumpkin and pecan.”

“I would like both, please.”

I turned to Joel. “What would you like, Joel?”

“May I have some pecan, please?”

“Of course. Would you like it à la mode?”

“Yes, ma'am.”

“Heated up?”

“No, cold is good. I don't like melted ice cream.”

“I'm the same way,” I said.

“It's all the same once it hits the stomach,” Chuck said.

“I don't know why people say that,” my father said.

I served pie to the two men, then took a sliver of both kinds for myself. After coffee, the men watched the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins football game while I did the dishes. I'm not saying they left me to do them—actually everyone offered to help, especially Joel, whom I practically had to push out of the kitchen. My father was even more difficult to dissuade. I got him out of the kitchen by telling him that he was being rude leaving his guests alone in the living room.

BOOK: The Mistletoe Inn
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