I knew what he wanted, and I gave it, a solemn nod.
“You believe me?”
Oh, yes, I believed him.
I’d believed for as long as I could remember that someday my father or my mother was going to kill me.
—Excerpt, The Unlucky Ones by Jane Gama
“Hey, Poppy, are you surprised to see me home early?” Mila leaned against the door, held there by the dog’s paws on her shoulders, and rubbed the base of her ears. Gramma had rescued the yellow Lab mix from Cedar Creek a few years ago—had seen the puppy perched on a tree stump snagged in the middle of the creek, alternating between whining at the current and barking for help. There had been other people around, but only Gramma had taken action, kicking off her shoes, wading into the waist-deep water and calming the dog for the trip back to shore.
Gramma hadn’t wanted a dog, but she’d saved its life, so she’d had to find it a safe home. Where else would that be but with Mila, she’d asked, as if it was the most logical question ever.
She had already given Mila two incredible gifts: unconditional love and escape from the terrors that were her parents. Trusting her with Poppy, with the care and nurturing of another living being, had been the third treasure. Twenty-four years old, and Mila had cried over the big-eyed waterlogged puppy who had climbed into her lap and promptly peed.
The Lab had changed Mila’s life. She’d never had a pet before, had been too terrified to even show interest in dogs, cats and hamsters. Showing interest in anything to her father was a one-way trip to pain.
Even over Poppy’s happy barking, Mila heard the police chief drive away. She exhaled, tightness easing in her chest and her stomach. He seemed a perfectly decent person, but being away from him made her feel the same way she did after a long swim: like a fish breaching, bursting from the crushing depths of the ocean into fresh, clean, light, sweet air.
He was a cop.
And she was what she was.
Not right. Damaged. A killer.
Numbness spread through her, closing her eyes, but she still saw things. Still heard. Still smelled. Thankfully, Poppy broke the moment by licking Mila’s face from the bridge of her nose all the way to her chin. “Ew, Poppy, no dog slobber.” Her voice trembled over the words, and she dragged in a breath before catching the dog’s face in both hands and pressing a grateful kiss right above her eyes.
“Okay, sweetie, let me get away from the door and maybe I’ll find some treats in the kitchen.” She caught the dog’s front paws and half pulled, half pushed them to the floor. After removing her ball cap and long-sleeved shirt, she bent to unlace her boots and kick them off on the rubber mat next to the door.
Goose bumps rising on her arms—and an odor so unpleasant that even Poppy wrinkled her nose and stepped away—Mila walked across the cool living room, the dining room and into the kitchen. Her landlord claimed the house had a thousand square feet of living space, but she was convinced that included the front porch, the back stoop and the shaded portion of the backyard. The kitchen’s maximum occupancy was one, though that never stopped Poppy from trying, and the bathroom was small enough that a two-by-three-foot rug covered all except the outside edges of the floor. Her bedroom was about ten by twelve feet—enormous compared to the second one, which had room for a twin bed, a night table and a skinny person standing sideways.
She got treats for Poppy before heading to the bathroom. She turned the water to hot, then shed her clothes in the hallway hamper. Once steam drifted on the air, she adjusted the water from scalding to merely breath stealing and stepped into the glass-enclosed shower.
The water streamed down her, washing away sweat and grime and the tensions she wore like a second skin. She luxuriated in it for one minute, three, five, then washed her hair and scrubbed her body. When she’d started working at Happy Grass, she had welcomed long days in the sun, wearing only short shorts and a tank top. That first day, Ruben had looked at her and shaken his head chasteningly. That day she’d burned despite her olive-toned skin and a zillion-SPF sunblock. She’d quickly adopted Ruben’s ways.
Her brown skin and black hair helped her live up to the name she and Gramma had chosen so long ago. People heard the name, looked at her and thought, Yes, she looks like a Milagro Ramirez. Even Chief Douglas had seemed surprised when he’d heard her unaccented voice.