Gramma had tried over the years to push her into some friendships. A person needed to be around people their own age, she’d insisted as she gently, lovingly shoved Mila forward. It’s the normal way of life.
Mila and normal didn’t belong, no matter what the age.
“Don’t you want a best friend?” Gramma had asked in frustration. “Don’t you want a boyfriend someday?”
Mila had lied, told her no. It wasn’t that she didn’t want. It was that she didn’t know how to be a best friend or a girlfriend. Relationships required trust, and the only person Mila had ever trusted in her entire life was Gramma.
And now Gramma wanted her to be friendly with Chief Douglas.
Her stomach flip-flopped. She did her best to never let Gramma down, but encouraging any sort of relationship between her and the chief seemed a one-way trip to disaster.
Vaguely queasy, Mila showered, dressed in a summer dress, dried her hair, then with Poppy on her heels, she made a round of the living room. She swept an entire bookshelf clean of files, correspondence, printed pages and notebooks. In the tiny second bedroom, she crabbed sideways between the bed and the wall to dump her load into the mostly empty closet. There was a box, filled with copies of a single book; a file box with documents and statements; and a battered old photo album.
She closed the door, feeling marginally safer. This weekend she would put a dead bolt on that door. Then she wouldn’t have to worry about anyone who came here learning a single thing about her. She’d been tortured by the details of her life forever. No one else deserved to suffer.
Stepping outside onto the back porch, she debated whether it was cool enough to eat there. There really was no option inside for three people, especially one who seemed to take up as much space as…Sam, she tried experimentally. It was a nice name—strong, no-nonsense. And like most first names, it felt very personal to her. Maybe she would stick with Chief.
With the ceiling fan turned on, the porch was bearable. She did a quick sweep of the old floorboards, then dragged over a stepladder to stretch out the mosquito netting that hung at the four corners, puddling the creamy net on the floor.
With lights hanging around the perimeter of the porch, the fan and the sweet, luscious fragrances of the flowers, the space was welcoming. A little cramped, but with Gramma there, it would be bearable.
She had just put the stepladder away when Chief Douglas knocked at the front door. She knew it was him because Poppy was howling excitedly and because Gramma never knocked; she jiggled the doorknob even though she’d been the one to teach Mila to always, always lock her doors.
Her breath caught in her chest. She’d talked more in the last two days than in the past month. Her sparse supply of words was used up. Why couldn’t Gramma have asked him to pick her up on the way back? She could talk to anyone.
Another knock pushed Mila through the kitchen and to the front door. She grabbed Poppy by the collar, twisted the lock, then backed away, dragging the dog with her. “Come in.”
The chief opened the door and stepped inside slowly, careful to close it before Poppy had a chance to escape. His gaze went from her to the eighty-pound dog straining hard to check him out, her barks turning sharp, her nails digging into the floor as she tried to twist free. “Hey, Poppy.” He crouched, a sensible distance between them. “You’ve got a big voice, don’t you, sweetie? What are you so excited about? Are you not used to having strangers come to your house?”
Poppy stopped barking so she could listen to him, her head tilted to one side. She still pulled, but with determination, not frantic dancing. She was sniffing so fast and hard that it was a wonder she wasn’t light-headed—though, really, based on her usual behavior, how would Mila know?—and drool puddled on the floor in front of her.
“Go ahead and let go of her,” Chief Douglas—Sam—said.
“She’ll knock you over.”
“Nah, I don’t fall so easily.”
Both cautious and curious, Mila released her hold on Poppy’s collar, and the dog made that sensible distance look like millimeters. Since the chief had wisely gotten on her level, she didn’t leap at him, but neither did she stop in time. Her body slammed into his, but he was prepared, absorbing the shock. Poppy couldn’t decide whether to hyperventilate while sniffing every inch of him or to enjoy the good scratching he was giving, so she contorted herself this way and that to take advantage of both.