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Fiction issue: Partly Cloudy

May 1, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Cumulonimbus clouds fortified the Midwest-blue sky, portending perhaps rain, perhaps tornadoes, perhaps nothing. The forecast called for a slight chance of something.

Kari followed the highway through fields of corn and soybeans. Old red barns, once-white silos and Amish windmills flew by the window, looking less like rural blemishes than accents, freckles upon the fair-skinned ginger landscape of natural America. The quaint disrepair of even the most decrepit structures was easier to comprehend than bright billboard, billboard, billboard for fast food, fast internet, fast loans, fast education, fast forgiveness.

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Garrison Keillor droned slobberishly over the radio.

The speed limit sign might’ve just said 70 mph.

Carrion surfaced to the highway like video game obstacles not to be taken too seriously: armadillo, deer, armadillo, dog, fox, (cat?), turtle, armadillo, coyote, dog, armadillo, possum (alive?), others. An occasional vulture or crow left with little alarm and returned after she sped by. Blood is bred the same color everywhere.

She brushed a stray lock of brown hair back from her eyes and tucked it behind her ear. She smelled like the lovely scent of a fondly remembered ex-lover, combined with the tiniest ureic tinge of adrenaline. She breathed evenly through parted lips.

In the passenger seat, oral contraceptives lay in a circular contraption on top of a small suitcase. In the suitcase were two days’ worth of clothes, a hygiene kit, several forms of identification, a medical history and a small envelope of cash.

Her phone lay charging in the 12-V receptacle. It vibrated occasionally, but she was either too enthralled with the radio program to hear it or just ignoring it.

She’d been driving for hours seeing nobody, and now she approached an ambling Amish buggy with an orange safety triangle screwed to the back. Two children sat facing her in the rear of the open buggy. They were a girl and a boy. Their faces were streaked with dirt, and their eyes betrayed nothing. The boy was tanned and dark. The girl was fairer, and her white bonnet was pushed back enough to display a tuft of rusty hair. It looked like neither of them wanted for something to do — life moved slowly for them, yet never a dull moment passed.

And suddenly, as if it always had to be this way, and she had only just triggered it, the boy stuck out his tongue and flipped her the bird. She shuddered and refocused back on the road. But she glanced back over and saw the boy’s sister giggling with a hand to her mouth and the boy still resolutely holding the pose. She sped up, and the children’s parents passed through the corner of her eye as she outdistanced them. She looked in the rearview mirror, but the couple didn’t seem to have noticed her presence at all save for the wind from the car upsetting the man’s beard. He reached and deftly caught it just before it wisped into his wife’s face, and held it back at his crotch. Then, Kari couldn’t see them clearly anymore.

She turned down the radio when Keillor began to sing, but she joined in later. She had heard this episode before.

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