“What do you think of this place, huh?” the woman asked. “It’s nice to be out of the rain. I wouldn’t want to be stuck out there.”
Doc Brown had made his way over unseen; even Miles had failed to notice his arrival. Doc Brown stood stoic and silent, a monolithic guardian, keeping a wary eye on Miles as if afraid he’d have to protect the woman from him somehow.
“You ain’t gon’ get much outta him,” said Doc Brown. “He’s been putting them away since three this afternoon.”
“You must like it here,” she said to Miles, ignoring Doc Brown’s comments.
“He practically lives here. I should be charging him rent.”
The couple at the end of the bar chuckled, the fell silent as Miles cast a glance their way.
“I can answer for myself, Doc,” said Miles finally breaking the uncomfortable quiet.
“It’s a beautiful countryside,” continued the woman, oblivious to the exchange between Miles, Doc Brown and the couple at the other end of the bar. “Reminds me a little of where I grew up.”
“It’s… away from everything.” Miles hesitated. Something about her made him want to continue the conversation, but he still fumbled. “I’m not so good… not so good with people.” The words tumbled out in a rush.
“That’s okay, honey.” Her voice was warm, reassuring. “I’m not going to hurt you. My name is Karen. Here.” She reached for her purse and pulled out an envelope stuffed with photos. “We’re just passing through. John and I are talking the boys to see their aunt.”
The voice began to creep back, slowly bubbling like oil in a warm saucepan, and Miles was struggling to ignore it. Something is wrong, it said. You don’t like strangers. Something is wrong something is wrong something is wrong.
She pushed the scattered stack of photos towards him; Miles retreated as she reached out.
“Something wrong, honey?”
“I just don’t like to be touched,” he said, and his voice took on a nervous tension.
“That’s all right,” Karen said. She spread the photos across the bar. “I thought I’d show you pictures from home. These are my boys.”
The photos were numerous, and obviously taken by someone who cared less about how to frame a shot than capturing the endless energy of her children. They were clearly a loving family; the array of images showed the boys pushing each other on a swing set, playing in heaps of raked leaves, wrestling with their father. Miles was surprised to realize he was smiling as he looked through the photos; he touched them all gently and found they carried they same compassion he felt from the woman. He felt as though he was in another world, soaking in the love and frantic energy these pictures carried. He could tell the woman spent time with these photos, carried them with her as if she feared she’d lose the memories, the moments suspended in the air, if she ever lost the photographs.
Doc Brown appeared with a near-empty coffee pot.
“More coffee, miss?” he asked.
“No, no thanks,” said Karen absentmindedly, not looking up.
“Dollar twenty-nine, then,” said Doc Brown.
“Oh,” said Karen, startled. She looked around but her husband was still in the bathroom with the boys. She fumbled with her purse. “Do you take credit cards?”
Doc Brown shot her a look and her face immediately fell, embarrassed and dismayed but Miles, entirely out of character and without really knowing why, spoke up and inserted himself between them.
“Let me get it,” he said, laying two dollars on the table.
Karen looked to him and her face was warm again.
“Well, aren’t you just the sweetest–” she began, and reached out to touch his hand in gratitude.
* * * * *
When later he remembered the incident, through the headaches that followed, between the flashes of disorienting light, Miles could clearly recall the voice crying out a warning in the seconds before she touched him. He could see, like the lights of a train barreling down a dark tunnel, something careening towards him, something that was more like fear and anger and regret and panic all stuffed together and somehow made tangible.
Something bad now, he thought. Something bad now. You don’t talk to strangers. You never let them touch you.
After that, everything else was a blur, a blizzard of sound and images that quickly dissipated into foggy memory. But the dreams didn’t stop. In his dreams he would remember.