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I I I
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KAREN WAS THE ONE who insisted they drive. Long Sunday drives were something she missed from her childhood. John would much rather have flown; she knew that, but she missed the open air of a long country drive, and besides that airplanes made her nervous and uncomfortable.
South they drove, on highway 93 out of Idaho and into Northern Nevada, the cities becoming more and more sparse, the green underbrush trickling away until the horizon was nothing but desert. And, despite the summer heat, the sky above the great Nevada basin began to grey, the sky cracked open with a mighty thunderclap, and the rain began to pour.
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The room was a bustle of energy, but it was a predictable energy, and Miles liked that. Doc Brown looked across the bar with a swelling sense of pride, as he did every evening, but there was a distance in his expression, a detachment, like he was somewhere else – years ago and miles away.
He could feel them before they came in, the family of four that tumbled in from the rain. A quick glance into the mirror behind the bar confirmed what he already knew: a father leading two rambunctious young boys, the mother was still in the entryway shaking out her umbrella, just out of sight. He saw Doc Brown look up, startled by the presence of young children.
“The boys need to–” the father started to say, and Doc Brown jerked his thumb towards the neon sign. “Thanks.”
“Kitchen’s closed,” said Doc Brown.
“That’s fine.” The woman took off her coat and hung it on the high backed barstool a few feet from Miles. He turned slightly and faced away from her, trying to garner as little attention as possible. “We just needed to get in out of the rain for a minute.”
Doc Brown stared at her.
“You gonna order something, or you jus’ gonna let your kids run up mah water bill?”
“Oh,” said the woman, a little embarrassed. “I’ll have a cup of coffee.”
“It ain’t fresh,” said Doc Brown, as if challenging her to ask for a fresh pot.
“That’s fine,” she said.
Doc Brown brought her a coffee and busied himself at the other end of the bar, chatting idly with a young couple. Their quiet laughter drifted through the bar, mingling with the sounds of clinking glasses, the scraping of chairs on the wood floor, the crash of balls across the billiards tables.
Miles tried not to pay any mind to the woman settling next to him, tried to silently wish her away, tried not to absorb the sensations she brought with her into the room.
The voice inside his head said stay away. You don’t like strangers, it said. Stay away. He focused all of his attention on his hands, clasped firmly around his rocks glass, and the caramel-colored contents, and willed her, concentrated every ounce of strength he had within him to make her go away. Make her go away. Make her go away.
She added cream and sugar and sipped the coffee, and after a moment’s consideration, added more sugar. Then, as though reading his mind, as if willfully subverting him, she turned to him and smiled.
“Hey, there,” she said.
He shouldn’t have looked at her; he knew he shouldn’t have looked at her, but the moment he looked up at her his face relaxed, his shoulder lost their tension, he was overcome by a feeling he could not at first explain. She was beautiful, a bit older than him, with curly dark hair that tumbled down her shoulders, still wet from the rain. She smiled again, wider, and he realized the sensation was an overwhelming sense of well-being. Here was a woman who truly appreciated life, who truly feared very little, who genuinely loved all things. Miles was caught for a moment, like a small creature frozen in oncoming headlights, and he felt disoriented, dizzy.
In an instant he felt her compassion; her adoration for her husband and her children, her love of the open road, the subtle sense of timid fascination from stepping into an unfamiliar place, and her genuine curiosity in Miles, a lonely creature drinking by himself.
Miles was awash with these unfamiliar sensations when the voice began again, but it was muted, like it was calling from far away, and it was lost in the rolling sea that was this strange and beautiful woman. But the voice was still there, murmuring in the dark; something in the back of his mind was crawling and gnawing and biting, trying to breach the surface of his subconscious.
Then the woman cocked her head to one side, mischievous twinkle in her eye, and the voice fell silent, and Miles was lost.