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Jon Erikson wandered into Conard City, Wyoming, like a man lost in the midst of a wild blizzard. Only he wasn't lost, he had grown up here. But it had been so long, and he'd been so far away, that he felt more lost than he had since his first days in Afghanistan.
He found Mahoney's Bar where it had always been. The thought of bellying up to the bar and ordering a beer had been whirling in his dreams for a long time now. Stomping the snow off his boots, he walked inside.
Nothing had changed, except some of the faces. They all turned to look at him, but none seemed to recognize him. Why should they? He hadn't been back here in a long, long time.
Only Mahoney gave him a second glance, as he drew a draft beer for him and put it in front of him. "I know you?" Mahoney asked finally.
Jon wasn't sure he wanted to answer, but finally he said, "I lived here a long time ago."
Mahoney nodded. "Must've been a kid. You look like you've put in a lot of tough miles."
Jon gave him a nod, then lifted the frothy beer to his mouth.
Mahoney didn't press him any further, apparently figuring it was none of his business. Jon was grateful. He wanted, needed, to be left alone for a while.
The bar was too warm. He wasn't used to central heating any longer. Worse, it seemed to be closing in on him. And the beer it didn't taste as good as he remembered.
He told himself to cool it, that things were just fine, but he honestly couldn't remember the last time he hadn't felt wired and wasn't sure he knew how to unwind.
So drink your beer and just wait.
The tension would have to let go, sooner or later. There wasn't a threat within thousands of miles. But while his brain knew that, the rest of him seemed unable to accept it. He downed the beer and ordered another one, standing with his foot on the rail, rather than sitting on one of the stools. "Hey," said a quiet female voice.
Every muscle in his body tensed, and he automatically reached for the weapon that wasn't there.
"Relax," she said. "I just thought I recognized you." He turned slowly and looked at a pretty dark-haired young woman, maybe twenty-five or so, dressed in a State Park Ranger's uniform with an unzipped green parka over it.
"Aren't you Jon Erikson?" she asked.
He nodded slowly, uneasy at being recognized. That, too, had been trained into him.
Her smile started at her blue eyes, then traveled down to pink lips. "I thought so. You were three years ahead of me in school, so you probably never noticed me. I had a crush on you, though."
He should know how to respond to that. Words should come automatically. Something light, something about how could he possibly have overlooked her, kid or not. Some distant part of his brain remembered how to be sociable, but such things had been burned out of him a while back.
"I'm Melinda Hawthorne," she said, sticking out her hand. "State Park Ranger in these woods."
He shook her hand automatically, then abruptly became acutely aware of the warmth of her skin. It wasn't soft skin; clearly she worked hard with her hands. But it was warm, and human, and it wasn't threatening.
"You look like you could use something to eat," she said. "We can eat a sandwich here, or go over to the City Diner and have a bigger bite."
"I'm buying," she said with a laugh. "It's not often I meet someone from that far back who hasn't been around ever since. I want to hear about the big world."
"Can't tell you much. I've spent most of my time in " He trailed off. He didn't want to talk about that.
"I know," she said, taking his arm. "Come on, let's go to Maude's. You need one of her steak sandwiches and fries."
Now that did sound good. He was so damn sick of MREsmeals ready to eat? What a jokeand goat cheese. "Fine, but I'm buying," he said.
She shook her head. "I always go Dutch. Unless I buy."
"Dutch it is."
What the hell was going on? A few minutes ago he'd been living in his isolated world with his miserable self, and all of a sudden he'd been yanked out of it by a girl he couldn't even remember.
But she remembered him. And somehow, surprisingly, that made him feel good. As if somehow some part of him hadn't died over there.
Closing up their jackets and pulling up their hoods, they stepped out into the blowing snow. "This is global warming," she said, raising her voice to be heard over the wind.
"Yeah, that makes sense."
"I'm not kidding. We never used to get so much snow or so many blizzards. But I don't want to argue about it."
Maude's wasn't very far, although tonight it was fairly deserted. Maude herself was the only one on duty, and in her usual welcoming way she stomped over to the table, slapped the menus down and said, "Coffee's fresh, kitchen's pretty much closed 'cause of the storm, but I can make you steak sandwiches and fries."
Melinda answered with a smile. "That's exactly what we came for, Maude."
Maude grunted, then looked more closely at Jon. "Aren't you the Erikson kid? Old Lars's son?"
Maude put her hands on her hips and frowned at him. "Boy, you can't be much over thirty. Whatever you're doing with your life ain't healthy for you."
Then she turned and stomped away, leaving Melinda and Jon to look at one another across a Formica tabletop. Jon had chosen the seat with his back to the wall so he could see the entire room. But now, as he finally met Melinda's eyes again, he saw something dark there, something that belied her outward friendliness and easy smiles.
And somehow that darkness called to him. At once he looked away, disturbed.
"So," she said, "you left town a couple of days after graduation. Everyone said you'd enlisted."
He nodded, reluctantly looking at her again. "Marines, if I remember right."
She frowned faintly. "Given what the Marines have been doing for the last few years, I guess you haven't been playing golf."
"Not exactly." He felt his nerves tightening again, winding up as if a grenade were about to land in his lap.
"Sorry," she said, and let it go. As if she understood that he still felt like a combination of hunted animal and predator.
Maude brought two mugs of coffee and plunked them down on the table with her usual lack of grace. "Five minutes on them sandwiches," she said and stalked away. Maude always seemed angry with the world, and somehow that thread back to his childhood days made his surroundings feel more real to Jon. The ever-present prickle at the base of his skull eased.
"I love Maude," Melinda said. "No matter what goes on in the world, she's always the same. She'll always grumble when she serves the same menu year in and out. Nobody in the world makes fat taste as good."
Jon felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. It felt good. "My arteries are hardening already."
"Every month I come into town from my place in the park, and the first thing I do is stoke up on Maude's food. Well, maybe the second thing. I always get a draft at Mahoney's, too." She paused for a moment. "How long are you in town for?"
"I'm not sure." He didn't have to ship out for another three weeks, but whether he wanted to spend all that time here was something he hadn't really decided, even though he had no idea where else he would go, except maybe to visit some buddies who'd come home wounded.
"Well, if you're still here in two weeks, why don't you come with me to the Tates'for Christmas dinner. You remember the Tates."
"How could anyone not? Is he still sheriff?"
"Absolutely. Do you think anyone would be crazy enough to run against Nate Tate?"
His faint smile broadened. "Probably not."
"He's a good guy." Something passed like a shadow across her face, then vanished before he was even certain he'd seen it.
Maude brought their steak sandwiches, slapped the hot plates on the table and shook her head again. "Boy, you look like you been hung out to dry."
Then, before he could think of an answer, she vanished back into her kitchen.
"You really don't look so good," Melinda said.
"Like you need to be fed, and you need some rest. Where are you staying?"
"Stupid question," she said with a little laugh.
"Where else could anyone stay here? I'm staying there, too, even though ordinarily I'd go back tonight. You'd be amazed how much trouble people can get themselves into by going into the mountains in winter."
"No, I wouldn't be surprised."
She looked at him straight on, then nodded. "No, I suppose you wouldn't."
The blizzard was blowing even harder by the time they stepped out of Maude's.
"My car's just over there," Melinda said, pointing to a heap of snow.
"Are you sure we can find it?"
She laughed. "We'd better, or it's going to be a cold walk."
He helped her brush the snow off a park service four-wheel-drive truck, one of the big ones, and painted that icky green that park services seemed to like. The tires were studded, so they stuck to the road pretty well as she drove through the deepening drifts in the streets.
At the motel, she bade him good-night as soon as they were out of the car.
He stood in the blowing snow, hardly feeling the cold, watching her disappear into a room four doors down from his. Then he entered his own room and closed the door.
At once he felt as if he were in a tomb. Too quiet. Too warm. Not even a draft under the door.
He turned off the heater under the window at once and opened the window a crack. Cold air snaked into the room, transforming it, and the keening of the wind could be heard.
Only then did he flop into the bed and slip into what he hoped would be a dreamless sleep.