Almost Human: Part 1

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Denver had been at the same county diner for hours, nearing some realization that he was trapped. Patrons came and went as he sat in the corner booth, nursing a cup of coffee while rubbing his last two quarters together. At thirty-two, he was still relatively young and resourceful. He could hitch a ride somewhere, but he had nowhere else to go. In the many years he had been away from home, nothing had changed. The same buildings flanked cracked asphalt roads. The same, simple people shuffled down the sidewalk, absent their surroundings. His return home hadn't gone as expected.

He scanned the diner, noticing empty booths and tables among the few patrons seated. It was just past noon, and there was no lunch rush in sight. Beth, his petite, pony-tailed server, had stopped asking him if he wanted anything else and allowed him to remain out of apparent politeness. Most people in town were just as well-mannered. An elderly couple sat by the window, eating. A disheveled-looking man in a T-shirt and flip-flops with bushy gray hair and sideburns sat near them, scrolling through his cell phone. A bearded man in a red flannel shirt sat in a corner booth by the windows, reading his newspaper between quick, curious glances in Denver's direction.

The back kitchen popped and hissed from behind the counter. Its greasy burger aroma made Denver's stomach rumble. He had little to show for anything beyond his carry bag and wrinkled two-hundred-dollar suit. There was no reason he couldn't get his feet back on the ground, but none of that mattered. He was too hungry to think of how to do it.

He rose and stretched toward the large pane windows where red-checkered drapes adorned all sides. The quiet parking lot and outside forest increased the sense of rural isolation. Denver straightened his tie and pulled at the sleeves of his coat as gambling debts plagued his mind. He had made too many mistakes and reached the point of no return. A fresh start seemed a distant dream, but he wasn't ready to give up, despite traveling cross-country on a Greyhound for days on end. He took a deep breath and approached the man with the sideburns from a few tables, trying to think of some friendly rapport as he observed the man's Tennessee Titans shirt.

"Hell of a game last night." He recalled a glimpse of the score from a smoky bar the night before.

The man looked up with a blank expression, sandwich in hand. "They blew it," he said with a disappointed tone, returning to his phone screen.

"Ah, they'll come back before the playoffs," Denver replied. He took a quick look around and then extended his hand, introducing himself. "Name's Jim. Nice to meet you." He rarely used his real name when meeting people. The less they knew the better.

The man offered a limp, disinterested shake in return. "Wayne."

Undeterred, Denver continued. "How about a beer, Wayne?"

Wayne shifted in his chair without response.

Denver leaned against an empty chair at the table and chuckled. "Never too early, right?"

"I'm fine, thanks," Wayne responded.

Denver gripped the chair, exposing a wedding ring on his left hand despite being divorced for over three years. "Wife's supposed to pick me up soon. We're visiting the in-laws. Unfortunately, I don't get along with them and had to hide out for a bit." He paused and then seated himself across from Wayne, who appeared befuddled toward his continued presence. "I tried to make it work last night. I really did. It's just..." he paused to notice Wayne staring at him. "I apologize. I'm not trying to bother you. Just getting a little stir crazy here."

Wayne slowly nodded as he looked toward the kitchen. Denver could sense his annoyance, but with the right words, he could change that. "It's been about five years since my last visit," he continued. "Terrible time to return. Damn wildfires spread for miles like an inferno."

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