We passed farmhouses with windows wrapped in white lights, houses that were never intended to be this close to a highway. Houses that once stood like solitary trees on the plain, but tonight surely shuddered with the wheels of the bus grating against the interstate, amidst the hopeful rattling of reindeer hooves on the roofs.

‘There are lives inside’ my quiet voice said from the very last row of the bus, the one adjacent to the bathroom. I was sitting in the only seat that still had an empty seat next to it. I have a certain quality that often encourages people not to approach me or sit down next to me. They usually tell me this later, once they’ve substituted their initial impression for a more nuanced truth.

So I sat alone without so much as a temporary friend at the back of the bus plummeting up Highway 75. The low hum of casual conversation became a soundtrack as I stared at the flashes of road and snow against the passing headlights and a scene from Forrest Gump played across my mind, the one where nobody lets Forrest sit down next to them.

Until Jenny says in her small southern accent ‘You can sit here.’

And at that moment in the scene, my own quiet voice said ‘You can sit here’, and in the next moment I felt something push up against my lower leg. I thought maybe it was someone’s bag or my own backpack that had fallen from its perch next to me.

I looked down.

There was a dog.

The guy and his golden retriever had managed to deflect the couple of inane comments that people threw his way after someone asked why he had a dog with a vest on a bus and he said ‘for emotional support.’ He’d sat down somewhere in front of me and his dog had settled next to him in the aisle.

But now the dog wasn’t in the aisle. The dog had gotten up and moved down the aisle and into my row and past the space under the empty seat, where there were no feet, to rest his head across mine.

A minute passed before the guy realized his dog was missing. He got up and turned around to see the golden tail poking out from the floor of my row and he walked back, apologizing in embarrassment. I told him the dog was fine and ‘it’s all good.’

Because it was.

The guy nodded and went back to his seat and I watched the houses become farther and farther beacons between each other as the snow blew sideways under the occasional porch light.

I reached down and rested my hand on the dog’s head and this time my quiet voice said ‘Thank you. And Merry Christmas.’

He looked up and gave a single thwack of his tail against the floorboard.

And we rode on.